Drone firms have sights on Winston-Salem, Greensboro

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RALEIGH — The drone industry has its sights set on Winston-Salem and Greensboro, according to executives in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, equipped with sophisticated eye-in-the-sky technologies.

First, however, the state General Assembly must hash out regulations that protect privacy and guard against possible abuses by law enforcement, according to civil-liberties groups, industry executives and state lawmakers.

With regulations in place, then companies in this burgeoning industry – estimated to balloon to $300 billion within a decade – will migrate to North Carolina because the state has ideal terrain and an educated workforce for research and development, said Ted Lindsley, the CEO of Olaeris, a company that specializes in unmanned aerial systems, or UAS – the technology that, affixed to unmanned aircraft, captures images.

And, within the state, the Triad could be to the UAS industry what Silicon Valley has been to the computer chip, according to Lindsley, because of the Triad’s “perfect” elevation of about 1,200 feet.

Speaking by Skype on Monday from Thailand to a panel of state House members here, Lindsley said Olaeris has chosen North Carolina above 18 other states to set up its main office and has been in talks with both cities. Winston-Salem and Greensboro officials confirmed that talks have taken place.

In talks with cities

For the first eight months of 2013, Olaeris worked with the city of Greensboro in an effort to make it the first city in the U.S. to integrate UAS technology into city services, Lindsley said, particularly emergency response services.

“We do believe that the technology has great uses for law enforcement,” said Susan Danielson, a spokeswoman for the Greensboro Police Department, confirming that the city has been in talks with the company. In Winston-Salem, Derwick Paige, an assistant city manager, also confirmed that Olaeris has expressed interest in doing business in the city. Discussions have been preliminary, he said. No talks of incentives have taken place.

The first manufacturing plant is expected to employ nearly 200 engineers, technicians, programmers, pilots, trainers and support personnel, according to Olaeris. A key electronics component supplier to Olaeris has also expressed interest in opening a facility nearby once a site has been chosen, according to the company. More than 30 supply vendors contacted Olaeris when the company chose North Carolina in December, Lindsley said.

Olaeris wants two things: to partner with emergency management departments and test its technology, city officials and Lindsley said.

While alluding to the sinister image that predator drones have formed as a result of the Afghanistan war, Linsdley said that he hopes to build trust with the public by showing how unmanned aircraft equipped with his UAS technology can help people, such as finding missing persons, probing for hazardous materials and monitoring for pollution.

Talks have stalled in Winston-Salem and Greensboro because regulations have not been set up yet, according to city officials and Lindsley. Had regulations been in place, Olaeris would already be operating in North Carolina, Lindsley said.

“The bottom line is, we plan to live in North Carolina, too, and I don’t really want a predator drone staring at my backyard anymore than you do,” Lindsley said.

Moratorium on use

A moratorium on drone use by most government agencies is in place statewide.

According to a survey commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union and conducted by Public Policy Polling, 72 percent of North Carolina voters believe law enforcement and other government agencies should be required to obtain a warrant from a judge before using a drone, or unmanned aircraft, to conduct surveillance on a private citizen. Only 13 percent of those polled said they did not support the warrant requirement. The survey included 884 voters across the ideological spectrum, according to ACLU-NC.

The ACLU-NC supports the Preserving Privacy Act of 2013, a bipartisan bill introduced last year that would prohibit individuals and government agencies, including law enforcement, from using a drone to gather evidence or other data on individuals without first obtaining a warrant that shows probable cause of criminal activity, according to the ACLU-NC. The bill includes an exception that allows law enforcement to use a drone to conduct searches if the agency possesses “reasonable suspicion” that immediate action is necessary to prevent certain types of immediate harm.

Members of the state House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems also expressed support for warrants, saying that laws that apply to current technologies used by law enforcement should be applied to any possible use of unmanned aircraft.

“A UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) – it’s just an additional tool,” said Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston. “Right now there is a law in place that provides probable cause before the issuance of a warrant to survail (sic) an individual. … All we have to do is make sure the UAS (unmanned aerial system) operates within that same structure.”

The committee will meet again in mid- to late April. At that time, it could make a recommendation on regulations.