Local News

First drone approved for NC skies takes flight in Raleigh

Posted January 29, 2015
Updated January 30, 2015

— The only group permitted to fly drones in North Carolina took to the skies Thursday in Raleigh, where a team of researchers will use the unmanned aircraft for agricultural and environmental research.

Lake Wheeler Farm is one of six locations in North Carolina where the state and the Federal Aviation Administration have granted approval for the NextGen Air Transportation Center to operate drones.

One of those, the $50,000, 5.5-pound Trimble UX5 Aerial Imaging drone, is equipped with a near-infrared camera that can detect problems in the health of crops, according to Gary Roberson, an associate professor in biological and agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University.

"There's a lot of interest among farmers and crop consultants in using this technology," he said. "What we're looking for is the ability to manage nutrients. We're looking at the ability to detect and manage disease. There's also some application in the livestock industry."

The FAA currently prohibits commercial use of drones, but it does allow government use if a state approves it. Hobbyists need no FAA approval as long as their drones remain in sight.

NGAT director Kyle Snyder says authorized drones will fly only over N.C. State property and will stay clear of homes, roads and other areas where safety and privacy are concerns.

"When we're flying, we want to make sure we're flying in big, safe areas," Snyder said. "We can do the research that says how these (drones) will be used."

The federal government is still working out regulations for drones. NGAT says that, if drones are well-regulated, they can have a variety of practical uses, including working in emergency services – such as finding a missing person – and monitoring infrastructure.


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  • goldeagle Jan 30, 2015

    The machine should be configurable to look for just about any chemical that interferes with the way light is reflected. It is quite reasonable to believe that tobacco, or pot, or perhaps watermelons could be made to stand out like a neon sign, depending on the configuration and programming.

    Presumably, the purpose of the research is to determine plant health by correlating what chemicals are reflected. Studies of nutrient deficiency can tell the drone what sick plants look like.

    I don't know the current state of the art in instrumentation, but one approach is to take a set of pictures with different filters and run the results for each pixel through an equation to estimate the level of a chemical. Lots of calculations that can probably be done more efficiently by specialized processor designs.

    I am guessing it took 3 or 4 different wavelengths to estimate a composition, thus the need for 3 or 4 video feeds. Instrumentation may have improved over the decades-maybe a lot.

  • goldeagle Jan 30, 2015

    At the risk of identifying myself, I'll try to answer a few questions. The BAE department was interested in NIR spectroscopy decades ago. I once had a part time job there, but I am not at all associated with them now.

    On a properly configured drone for this application, there may be incidental images taken of areas around the region of interest. These images may or may not ever make it to the ground--it depends on how it is flown, built, and programmed. These images selectively enhance certain colors of light. For example, a plant may appear white, while something else that would normally be visible may appear darker. The filters should be able to be removed to take normal pictures at the discretion of the operator. The view at 30 mph is probably limited, even if you are recording.

    Some designs may process images in the air, others may store them until landing, and others may transmit them over the airwaves. Radio spectrum and power to transmit images are probably at a premium.

  • Black HelicoptersNFood Insurance Jan 30, 2015

    OMG this just proves Obama is using drones to spy on “true patriots” grilling in their backyards! Maybe we will finally see Clinton’s “smart bombs” being used against civilians as Rush promised us so many years ago!!!!!!!!!

    -Chicken Little signing out!

  • pork rinds and jelly donuts Jan 30, 2015

    Boss, boss, dey plane, dey plane.

  • North Carolina Cutie Jan 30, 2015

    What other vegetation can it spot?

  • iopsyc Jan 30, 2015

    View quoted thread

    The drone is manufactured by a publicly traded company, founded buy a guy from Hewlett Packard.

  • Jack Miller Jan 30, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Thanks for your insight. I've seen where some pilots have called "near misses" with drones.

  • Norman Lewis Jan 30, 2015
    user avatar

    When these drones are flying over land at say 200 feet, how wide is the field of view of the camera? There are still privacy concerns I have of my home being in the view of one of the drones during "testing", "trial runs" etc. I don't engage in illegal activity but neither do I want my activities while in the privacy of my own property, on public view. How far will these drones be launched from their target? If it flies hundreds of feet to where it needs to go, it will have a lot of things in view on the way. I reserve the right to protect my privacy by any means necessary from unwanted and illegal intrusion by drone aircraft into my private space. At this point in development of this technology, drones are a solution looking for a problem.

  • ncpilot2 Jan 29, 2015

    As a pilot and someone who has been involved in aviation safety for years, I can state emphatically this is ridiculous. From the insane cost to the way they are attempting to regulate them, it is all big government trying to watch and protect big companies from competition.

  • HeyHeyHey!!! Jan 29, 2015

    They should start supplementing Durham Police patrols with a whole squadron of drones. I might actually consider going back to another Durham Bulls game.