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A trial drone flight on Thursday across the inlet from Hatteras to Ocracoke’s north end could lead to another way to deliver emergency supplies to this furthermost Outer Banks island.
NCDOT’s Division of Aviation, in partnership with the NCDOT Ferry Division and U.S.-based drone logistics company Volansi, completed two successful trial flights of a delivery drone from Hatteras to Ocracoke.
“This is a tremendous first step in better connecting Ocracoke Island to potentially life-saving supplies and equipment,” said Secretary of Transportation Eric Boyette. “Today, Ocracoke Island is accessible only by plane or by boat. What we’re working on here is an entirely new, third method of serving the needs of Ocracoke’s people.”
For Thursday’s test flights, a the Volansi C-10 Gemini drone took off from the Hatteras Village ferry dock and landed at the South Dock on the north end of Ocracoke Island. The eight-mile round trip flights averaged only 18 minutes in flight time.
To simulate a real post-storm emergency delivery operation, both flights carried small payloads. The first delivered a small survival kit, space blankets and a chocolate muffin to Ocracoke, while the second delivered bottles of water.
The muffin got eaten but the rest of the items were flown back to Hatteras, said NCDOT Spokesman James Pearce in an interview. He said the flight and landing sites were automated.
A basket underneath the drone carried the items, he said, and that basket can be detached, and a camera installed, which would be helpful to the NC Ferry Division to monitor shoaling.
The drone is capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and fixed-wing horizontal flight and can carry a payload up to five pounds.
Pearce said that the flight landing sites were drones are not allowed to fly higher than 400 feet, above which aircraft fly.
The trial flights were possible by a waiver for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight granted under the Federal Aviation Administration’s BEYOND program, which enables select state and local agencies to conduct drone operations that test the future capabilities of the technology.
Typically, the pilot of a drone must keep it within sight at all times, according to FAA rules, Pearce said.
“But with the flight being four and a half miles, they could still see it,” he said.
Pearce said smaller drones can fly in 30- to 40 mph winds.
“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. “Long-term, we could see deliveries coming to Ocracoke all the way from the mainland.”
The flights were conducted under NCDOT supervision by a team from Volansi, who also provided the aircraft.
The next test will involve flying a drone from Hatteras all the way to the village of Ocracoke but that date has not been set.