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February 16, 2017 10:00 AM, EST

North Carolina DOT Considering Drone Use for Highway Inspections, Natural Disasters

James MacDonald/Bloomberg News

Drones may become the latest tool for the North Carolina Department of Transportation when the state agency responds to natural disasters such as last fall's flooding from Hurricane Matthew.

Officials with the state agency say drones could provide information during emergencies by reaching areas not accessible by other means. Also, drones could respond to scenes in which it would be difficult and dangerous for DOT staff to initially reach a location.

The DOT's Division of Aviation recently collaborated with about 50 state and local government agencies and researchers during a workshop about the use of drones in crisis situations.

Another possible use of drones could be after rockslides along highways in western North Carolina, which has been a common problem on Interstate 40 at the North Carolina-Tennessee border.

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The study of the use of drones also will involve making sure that well-intentioned private owners of their own unmanned aircraft don't complicate emergency responses. The state wants to communicate with private drone owners so they don't unintentionally interfere during relief efforts, said Basil Yap, unmanned aircraft system manager for the DOT out of Raleigh.

One reason for the state's interest is the skyrocketing use of drones by aviation enthusiasts. The DOT reports that North Carolina now has about 15,000 registered drones, nearly double the 8,000 traditional aircraft registered in the state.

"Our goal is to ensure that drones flying within North Carolina are flown safely and responsibly," Aviation Division Director Bobby Walston said.

During Hurricane Matthew last fall, the DOT found that private owners of drones wanted to help state emergency crews by providing aerial views of flooded areas. The state wants to coordinate the response with drones during an emergency response, Yap told The High Point Enterprise.

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"Then we had municipalities or counties that owned drones and were using them to collect data," he said.

For example, one county in eastern North Carolina used a drone to monitor a dam to see how close it was to breaching or overflowing.

"They could monitor it through a drone without putting someone's life at risk," Yap said.

Another example where drones could help save lives is flying over flooded communities to spot individuals or families on the roof of a house. The drone could relay the coordinates to emergency responders, who could then use helicopters or watercraft for rescue.

"We want to understand their capabilities and what they can do," Yap said.

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