The North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) and state officials are currently building plans to use drones to deliver emergency supplies across the state; however, several hurdles need to be overcome first. Basil Yap, program manager of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems of the North Carolina Division of Aviation, says, “How do drones safely fly beyond visual line of sight, when you can’t see the drone flying? You’ll need to be able to detect other aircraft in that airspace. Another concern is: ‘How do these drones communicate securely when flying beyond our line of sight?’ And that would be utilizing technology like cellular technology, or maybe even satellite technology.” Currently, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone regulations, drones cannot be flown beyond visual line of sight unless the FAA grants a Part 107 waiver for the use. While there have been a handful of waivers granted for beyond visual line of sight operations, the program that North Carolina DOT wishes to operate would require many flights beyond visual line of sight which means that they must at the very least:

  • Use the drone in preplanned designated operational areas. Designated operational areas must be free of obstacles, obstructions, structures, and non-participating human beings –this requirement is usually outlined in FAA certificate of waiver for beyond visual line of sight operations;
  • Use drones with pre-programmed and actively available contingency and emergency profiles. The drone’s displays should be capable of alerting the pilot of degraded systems;
  • Use anti-collision lighting on the drone unless a system is in place that ensures the drone is able to avoid all non-participating aircraft; and,
  • Use a drone (and software) that is capable of semi-autonomous operations.

Surely, these type of limitations could still work for what the North Carolina DOT envisions for emergency medical supply delivery. However, while this particular use of drones is frequently seen in developing countries, the U.S. airspace is more complicated (and dense with other aircrafts). Yap further said, “So, how do we integrate both our current manned aircraft –with our airliners, or medvac helicopters and our new helicopters –how do we integrate those folks into this airspace where we have drone operating as well?” Lots of questions still remain.

For now, the plan is for the North Carolina DOT to implement a three-year program to gather and analyze safety and social issues associated with drone delivery for medical supplies. Who knows, by the close of that program, the FAA may have already released its long-awaited beyond visual line of sight rule. We’ll have to wait and see.