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North Carolina makes drone delivery to Ocracoke

The ultimate disposition of the historic muffin was not reported by the North Carolina Department of Transportation in a news release issued July 23 to announce the completion of a pair of round-trip flights by a fixed-wing drone with vertical takeoff and landing capability across the 4-mile gap between ferry docks on Hatteras Island, which is accessible by road, and Ocracoke Island, which is accessible only by air or sea. (And a noteworthy destination for general aviation pilots seeking a getaway.)

The flights involved local collaboration between two divisions of the NCDOT, the Division of Aviation and the Ferry Division, which provided operating bases and got a firsthand look at what drones could do to assist maritime operations on the Pamlico Sound, such as aerial surveys to monitor shoaling in the ferry channels. The state is among the participants in an ongoing national effort by the FAA to work with state and local governments to advance drone regulation and refine operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), a program called Beyond. (AOPA has long been a part of this broader effort, as a founding member of the FAA Drone Advisory Committee, and was appointed in June to an FAA rulemaking committee created to recommend performance-based standards for BVLOS operations.)

Drone delivery becomes more popular when it becomes reality. A postcard survey mailed to 22,000 residents of Christiansburg, Virginia, in November 2020 found enthusiasm for drone delivery in the community where another FAA-sanctioned collaboration conducted a drone delivery trial that began in 2019. Drone pioneer (and Google offshoot) Wing used unmanned aircraft to fly goods from Walgreens and local retailer Sugar Magnolia to area homes, along with select FedEx packages. The survey by Virginia Tech, published in April, found solid support for the concept, with 87 percent of respondents expressing positive sentiments, and 89 percent stating they were likely to use drone delivery when it is an option.

The Volansi C10 Gemini aircraft used in the July 22 test has a fixed wing, pusher prop, and four rotors to enable vertical takeoff and landing, transitioning to fixed-wing flight for long-distance cruise. It carries a 5-pound payload. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The limited cargo manifest of the North Carolina trial was a reflection of the state’s intent to demonstrate a capability to resupply the island after a storm cuts off access. It happened to closely approximate the cargo manifest in an April 2016 demonstration by another drone delivery pioneer, Flirtey, which dispatched a fully autonomous aircraft to deliver bottled water, emergency food, and a first aid kit.

Food has factored into subsequent drone delivery milestones, including Flirtey’s July 2016 completion of the first FAA-approved aerial Slurpee delivery (by drone from a 7-Eleven store to a home), followed by a Domino’s drone pizza delivery in New Zealand. 

The fledgling drone delivery industry has also shuttled medical supplies and COVID-19 tests, mostly in designated areas under tight supervision, but food remains very much on the radar of those seeking to utilize drones to the fullest. California restaurant chain El Pollo Loco recently announced intent to finally bring flying tacos to fruition, nearly a full decade after a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate sent the internet into a tizzy by creating a website promising drone-delivered tacos on demand. Quite a few responsible journalists bit on the Tacocopter website, which remains active, and were clearly annoyed when it turned out to be not operational. 

Meanwhile, North Carolina is taking it slow and steady, working with a U.S.-based drone company called Volansi to secure additional FAA waivers for longer flights beyond visual line of sight. The next step is to fly the Volansi C10 Gemini from Hatteras all the way to the Village of Ocracoke, a distance of nearly 15 nautical miles.

“This was just a small trial, but we hope to continue scaling this up to larger payloads and longer flights,” said NCDOT Unmanned Aerial Systems Program Manager Ben Spain, in a news release. “Long-term, we could see deliveries coming to Ocracoke all the way from the mainland.”

The test flights conducted under the FAA Beyond program, with a waiver to allow flight beyond visual line of sight, included two round trips between Ocracoke Island and Hatteras Island. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

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