Local News

Drones could help Outer Banks recover from future storms

Posted July 27, 2021 1:36 p.m. EDT
Updated July 27, 2021 6:06 p.m. EDT

— The remoteness of the Outer Banks makes the chain of islands so appealing, but when disaster strikes, getting help to people who live there is tough. That’s where drones could help.

Hurricane Dorian’s storm surge swamped parts of Ocracoke Island in September 2019. Flooding damaged homes and businesses, knocked out power and washed out roads. The island is accessible only by boat or aircraft, so the rush to get supplies to the remote village was a challenge.

Hyde County’s emergency management director, Joey Williams, said the state sent supplies by helicopter. Private boat owners from Carteret County also brought what they could.

"That helped us out a lot," Williams said. "But the big stuff — pallets of ready-to-eat meals, water, stuff like that — would have to come across on the ferry."

The state’s ferry system provides capacity for emergency supplies and personnel, but the trip can take almost three hours from the county seat of Swanquarter.

At Raleigh-Durham International Airport, almost 170 miles from Ocracoke, Ben Spain with the N.C. Department of Transportation is working on a prototype of an autonomous air taxi. When thinking about the future of aviation, Spain sees opportunity in the remoteness of the Outer Banks.

"We already have a ferry service," he said. "So wouldn’t it make sense in the future to have electric aircraft fly back and forth delivering cargo or people?"

Last week, the state joined with logistics company Volansi for test flights of a cargo-carrying drone. The drone successfully completed the 8-mile round-trip journey between the ferry docks at Hatteras Island and the north end of Ocracoke.

The payload was small — a chocolate muffin, space blankets and a first-aid kit on the first trip and bottles of water on the second — but it could be an early step toward faster recovery after storms.

Williams sees great potential in using uncrewed aircraft to respond to emergencies.

"We already use drones for search-and-rescue and thermal cameras," he said. "So I definitely see in the future us relying on drones a little bit more."

Spain believes supply deliveries using small drones could be approved within 10 years. He also believes drones someday could be used for general cargo deliveries to Ocracoke.

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