They’re going to be the eyes in the sky, searching for missing people or crooks.
They’re going to replace your mailman and pizza delivery guy.
They’re unmanned aerial vehicles — otherwise known as drones. And they’ll be in your community sooner than you might think.
The new state budget — signed by Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday — included the regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Legislators laid out rules to deal with safety and privacy concerns around drones, such as who can fly them and what they can be used to do.
There’s still a lot that needs to happen before drones take to the skies en masse. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the commercial use of drones, but it is working on new rules that would allow that use.
North Carolina legislators and unmanned aerial vehicle experts say they hope the state’s new regulations will get it ready for an industry that is set to launch.
“We are seeing the importance and the opportunities of this industry,” said Kyle Snider, the program director for N.C. State’s NextGen Air Transportation Center. “We want to show the business community that we mean business.”
People are probably most familiar with the large drones used by the U.S. military overseas. And you could buy a drone right now online, if you plan to fly it just as a hobby.
But researchers and product developers envision a variety of other ways unmanned aerial vehicles may replace piloted planes or helicopters for commercial or nonmilitary government uses.
Drones can be outfitted with cameras to help farmers identify problems in their fields or to help police gather evidence.
The unmanned vehicles can help natural resource officers examine damage from a storm or news organizations take video for stories.
Such companies as Amazon want to use drones to deliver packages.
The drone industry is poised to be an $89 billion worldwide market in the next 10 years, according to the FAA.
State leaders want to get a piece of that action. The first step was laying out some rules.
“People, I think, are a little uncertain as to whether the technology could wind up being abused,” said Stephen Hartzell, a lawyer with the firm of Brooks Pierce who followed the issue for the N.C. Association of Broadcasters.
“It will take some time for us to be as accustomed to a flying robot as we might be to a ground-based robot,” Hartzell said.
Legislators tried to satisfy privacy concerns over how police and individuals might use drones. Under the new law, for instance, police can’t use drones for surveillance without a warrant.
“We felt like we just needed to be out front, if possible, on any type of legislation that would protect the public interest,” said Rep. John Faircloth, a Guilford County Republican who served on a House committee that studied drones. “There is a question of how we protect the interest of the public when law enforcement is using this technology.”
So when is your remote-controlled pizza delivery going to get here?
That is at least five or 10 years away, Snider said.
Right now, the FAA only allows drones to fly in U.S. skies for government, research or hobby use.
The federal government is testing how the unmanned vehicles will work with existing piloted air traffic. The FAA planned to roll out new rules for small drone use by next year, but it’s behind schedule.
In the meantime, plenty of companies are ready to get projects off the ground.
A startup company called Olaeris wanted to make Greensboro the first place in the country with a citywide unmanned vehicle system. They promote their drone, called AEVA, as a tool that can arrive at the scene of a crime or accident before first responders.
Public safety officials saw the potential benefits, but city officials didn’t bite, considering the legal issues still must be sorted out.
The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, which owns a fixed-wing, piloted plane, also explored using an unmanned vehicle. In addition to the murky federal rules, a drone was nearly as expensive as the county’s existing plane.
The state estimated it would take $850,000 for an agency to get an unmanned aerial vehicle program started, plus about $435,000 in ongoing annual costs.
And Snider said it could take a law enforcement agency up to three years to get all the FAA approvals to get a countywide unmanned vehicle system in place.