Why Drones Could Be Coming To A County Near You

Mar 27, 2013

A MQ-9 Reaper drone.
Credit U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Ridgeway

North Carolina is vying to host one of six national test sites for unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones.  The prospect of a burgeoning domestic drone industry in the state has some people excited.  But others are voicing concerns.

“The FAA is really looking at better understanding how to do safe airspace integration,” said Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Center at North Carolina State University, on The State of Things. 

The NGAT Center is submitting a proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration for a test site in Hyde County.  Snyder said the Center’s research focuses on integrating UAV technology into various applications.

“Not just military but also public safety, agriculture - agriculture’s a big one,” he said. 

With the FAA preparing to open the skies to drones as early as 2015, Snyder said state officials want to make sure North Carolina is poised to attract business from the commercial drone industry.

But the proliferation of UAVs has civil liberties advocates worried.  The Monroe Police Department recently announced plans to acquire a drone (though the plan was later shelved), and local law enforcement agencies across the country already have them. 

“It is a new technology, and it’s actually sort of different from a lot of other technologies like helicopters or other surveillance devices,” ACLU of North Carolina policy director Sarah Preston said. 

There are also concerns that drones are just the latest war zone technology to be incorporated into local police forces that are already too militarized.  “We have to ask the question about drones, ‘How will they actually be used?’” said Tyler Wall, assistant professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University.  “What communities will they actually be observing the most?  It’s what I tell my Intro to Criminal Justice students: when you see the police car that says ‘To Protect and To Serve,’ you have to ask the question who’s actually being protected? Who’s being served?"

Wall also says there’s a lot of pressure from politicians and the business community for drones to be more widely adopted, noting that there’s already an Unmanned Systems Caucus in the U.S. House, and a trade lobbying group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Snyder says he expects the FAA to decide on North Carolina’s drone test site application in September.