Sunday, June 16, 2024

N.C. smaller airports could see big gains from drones

I was down in Washington, N.C., recently for a two-day drone technology summit at the Washington-Warren Airport. The airport has been modernizing its facilities, preparing for a future in which uncrewed aircraft of all kinds and planes coexist.

This has potentially big economic implications for small towns, where a lot of the general aviation airports are located. Drones are already being used to deliver food, spray herbicides and inspect bridges. Drones are important to our military. Defense contractors everywhere are working on improving them. We are looking at a future in which autonomous aircraft may fly rural patients to urban hospitals.

These applications all have the same challenge – finding friendly places to test innovations and safe places to operate.

Earl Malpass

That is where Washington-Warren comes in, and airport manager, Earl Malpass. Malpass, an experienced pilot, wants his regional airport to play a bigger role in a drone economy that is growing rapidly.

The airport’s partner in this has been a northern Virginia company, Xelevate, run by Marcy Eisenberg and her husband, Andy Biechlin. Xelevate describes itself as an “unmanned systems infrastructure as a service and air mobility solutions company.” Xelevate has an office next to the terminal at Washington-Warren and is working with the airport to integrate drones and general aviation.

Washington-Warren, which started more than 80 years ago as a Beaufort County military field, already had big plans.

“We had been looking forward to modernizing the airport,” Malpass said. “It was kind of a rural, sleepy airport. Like many of the general aviation airports all across the country, [it] was kind of getting smaller and used less.”

In 2012, the airport was hit by a severe storm that heavily damaged the 40-year-old terminal. The new terminal opened in 2015. The old name, Warren Field Airport – for longtime Congressman Lindsay Carter Warren, who passed away in 1976 – was changed to Washington- Warren Airport. There were other changes on the way.

Malpass, who had moved to the area after running a ministry in Alaska, was hired to run the airport in 2017. He started promoting it, and the airport and the city secured more than $5.6 million in state and federal funds to resurface the runaways, taxiways and tarmac, which were in bad shape.

But the big boost was $20 million in the state budget two years ago – a funding effort led by Rep. Keith Kidwell, (R-Beaufort) – that would pay for improvements to, among other things, the taxiways, for new hangars, and for an improved precision instrument landing system. The airport also has designated 107 acres next to one of the two 5,000-foot-long runways for an aeronautics industrial park.

Andy Biechlin

As the improvements were being put into place, Washington-Warren formed its partnership in August 2022 with Xelevate to create a commercial co-location facility for unmanned flight operation and planes. This meant 100 gigabit Internet and 5G wireless and a secure, on-site data center, because drone testing generates a lot of data. It meant advanced weather and sensor systems to keep track of what’s flying, and what the winds are doing at different altitudes. It meant having an air boss to decide when it is safe to fly unmanned craft, and having protocols to determine what that means.

It also brought Washington-Warren into contact with Xelevate’s network in the uncrewed aircraft systems network of military, academic, defense contractor and national security folks who are building out the nation’s UAS ecosystem.

The airport’s location is particularly good for this network: Four hours from northern Virginia where a lot of these folks live and work, two hours from Fort Liberty, home to the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command. And then there are the Marine installations from Cherry Point to Jacksonville, the Air Force in Goldsboro, the Coast Guard in Elizabeth City and the Navy in Norfolk.

And there’s lots of space. Beaufort County has a population density of 53 people per square mile. Mecklenburg County, more than 2,100 folks. Washington-Warren is a good place for beyond-visual-line-of-site drones, a short distance out to the Pamlico Sound and the ocean.

That is one of the appeals of eastern North Carolina to the aeronautics and aviation industry, and the region leans into that with its economic development strategy.

It wasn’t that hard a sell for North Carolina to interest Xelevate into coming down to take a look. As one of the co-founders, Biechlin recounted: “Within six months into our project, [we] got an unsolicited call. ‘[We] just put $20 million into an airport in Washington, N.C., and you guys are a drone company. Come to Raleigh and talk to us.’”

“We don’t make drones,” he said. “We are a drone infrastructure company. When we look for various locations our customers can navigate, if you’re looking for a place to get to quickly, to train, collaborate, meet industry or to test something, this is going to be one of those places. We’re having a lot of good conversions with some of the big drone manufacturers out there.”

Another big check

Another $13.5 million appropriation to help pay for the capital improvements came in the new state budget. Kidwell brought down the big, oversized check to the drone summit. The state likes this airport because it has enthusiastically embraced a future of air mobility that is important to folks in Raleigh.

Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, left, helped the Washington-Warren Airport get state funding.

Rebecca Gallas, the NCDOT’s aviation director, was at the summit to talk about the future.

Often, when people talk about advanced air mobility, “They’re talking about cities. But in North Carolina, we have a huge rural transportation problem that these new aviation technologies can address.”

North Carolina has 72 public airports, and 96% of the population is within a 30-minute drive to an airport. “Earl is definitely leading the way, thinking about how do we connect to our communities through these airports,” said Gallas.

The 10 commercial service airports – like RDU and Charlotte Douglas – and the 62 general aviation airports – like Washington-Warren – support 330,000 jobs and provide $72 billion of our state’s GDP. Washington-Warren pumps more than $25 million into the local economy annually.

“But this is just traditional aviation,” said Gallas. “Think about what this number will be over the next 10, 15, 20 years as we start to invest in this UAS technology.

“North Carolina is a great place to test out innovations, deploy innovations, just like the Wright Brothers 120 years ago.”

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