Editor’s note: Readers will find inside today’s edition our annual Progress edition. The following story about the growing unmanned aviation systems business was written for that edition but had to be omitted for space.
Local businessman Tim Barnett discovered his interest in drones while on assignment with his previous job.
Barnett, who retired from the Department of Homeland Security, said he was on a disaster deployment in the U.S. Virgin Islands with a colleague who brought along several of his personal drones.
“We flew the drones after work and on the weekends for relaxation and as a means of sight-seeing,” he said.
It wasn’t long before they realized the drones served a greater purpose.
“We had no idea how his drones would play a major role in the roof inspections of several medical facilities,” said Barnett, who now owns DroneICS LLC. “From then on I was hooked on how these machines could fly and the most important component, the camera housed underneath. … The photos and videos painted an exact picture of the damages to the roofs of the facilities.”
Barnett, who lives in Elizabeth City, said his company specializes in drone services for private and commercial real estate firms, construction project progress, safety and farm crop inspections, and disaster and fire response.
There is more to running a drone business than just buying one of the high-end aircraft and launching it, Barnett said.
He is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration as a Part 107 unmanned aircraft system pilot.
“I successfully passed the FAA’s small UAS rule Part 107 certification exam, which demonstrates that I understand the regulations, operating requirements and procedures for safely flying my drones,” he said. “Being licensed and flying under Part 107 also certifies me to fly commercially and for profit.”
Barnett said he completed several recommended Part 107 courses and studied several guides in preparing for the certification exam. The exam consisted of 60 questions comprised of five UAS topics: regulations, airspace and requirements, weather, loading and performance and operations, he said.
“There are very few commercial drone operators in the area due the difficulty of the test,” Barnett said. “It is not a test you can just walk into and expect to pass. The FAA is very serious about aviation and becoming a certified drone pilot is no different.”
Barnett cited a business article from September 2021 that said the global drone market was valued at $18.2 billion in 2020, and was projected to grow to $40.9 billion by 2027.
Elizabeth City State University almost certainly will help drive that growth. The university, which offers the only four-year degree in unmanned aircraft systems in North Carolina, broke ground in January on a $1 million drone training facility designed to give ECSU aviation science students experience operating unmanned aircraft in real-world conditions.
Construction of the state-of-the-art netted pavilion near the K.E. White Center is expected to be completed by July of this year. The project is being funded by the $15 million donation philanthropist Mackenzie Scott made to ECSU in November 2020.
Kuldeep Rawat, dean of ECSU’s School of Science, Aviation, Health and Technology, says the drone training facility will be the first of its kind in North Carolina. The pavilion will be 100 feet wide, 250 feet long and 50 feet high. SKA Consulting Engineers of Greensboro designed the facility and A.R. Chesson Construction Company of Elizabeth City will build it.
ECSU Chancellor Karrie Dixon said the facility and the university’s unmanned aircraft systems program will be important for public safety, emergency preparedness and economic development in the region.
Rawat said the facility could also benefit the program’s industry partners. “This will be the venue for people to come and test their products,” he said.
Rawat explained that the facility will allow students to operate in real-world conditions while remaining in compliance with FFA regulations that limit the operation of drones near airports. That’s relevant for ECSU because it’s located near the Coast Guard Air Station and Elizabeth City Regional Airport.
ECSU Provost Farrah Ward said the university has 20 industry-grade drones. She explained that the drone program is not only for students majoring in unmanned aircraft systems but also for those in other degree programs such as emergency management, digital media and homeland security.
Pasquotank Board of Commissioners Chairman Lloyd Griffin said the new drone facility will provide opportunities for local youth to be able to train in their own community for good-paying jobs in aviation and technology.
Interim city police Chief Larry James called ECSU’s aviation science program and its instructors a valuable resource for local law enforcement.
Drone technology is also important to the future of policing, James said.