North Carolina tests drone emergency supply flights to remote Ocracoke Island

North Carolina drone emergency

Residents and visitors of Ocracoke Island prize the calm and seclusion its remoteness affords. Yet that distance from off North Carolina’s coast also makes getting supplies to locals facing emergency extreme weather difficult – a problem drones may help Ocracoke solve.

Emergency drone supply flights to North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island

Last week North Carolina officials undertook two successful test flights of drones to Ocracoke carrying symbolic payloads of emergency supplies and water. The Volansi fixed-wing craft made the eight-mile roundtrips from nearby Otter Banks island Hatteras in around 18 minutes, using a Federal Aviation Administration waiver for beyond visual line of sight restrictions. Those trial runs added a new transport option for Ocracoke, which had only been accessible by boat or small plane.

Authorities eventually hope to start testing 20-mile flights across the Pamlico Sound from the mainland.

“This is a tremendous first step in better connecting Ocracoke Island to potentially life-saving supplies and equipment,” said North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Eric Boyette in a statement. “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.”

Of course, wind-sensitive drones won’t be of any help during the episodes of foul weather that periodically disrupt supply deliveries to Ocracoke. The worst of those came in September, 2019, when Hurricane Dorian battered the island with seven-foot storm surges. But knowledge of when brutal weather systems are set to hit may allow officials to make repeated drone flights to Ocracoke with emergency and other essential supplies beforehand, and as soon as things calm again. That thinking was behind the small but carefully selected payloads of a survival kit, space blankets, and a chocolate muffin on the first test run, and water on the second.

“This was just a small trial, but we hope to continue scaling this up to larger payloads and longer flights,” said Ben Spain, North Carolina’s Department of Transportation’s uncrewed aerial systems manager. “Long-term, we could see deliveries coming to Ocracoke all the way from the mainland.”

The tests used Volansi C-10 Gemini vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft, which has maximum payload capacity of five pounds. Spain noted that in addition to drone transport of emergency and essential goods to Ocracoke, vehicles fitted with lidar sensors could also provide valuable help monitoring shoaling in canal ferries use to shuttle from Outer Banks islands and the mainland. 

Though the date has yet to be fixed, authorities said the next trials will fly drones from Hatteras to Ocracoke’s main village.

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