Saturday, June 15, 2024

New drone testing program gets $5 million in state budget

AeroX wants to make Forsyth County a leader in drone aviation, and it’s getting $5 million in the recently approved state budget to get started.

The nonprofit is working with local airport and health care officials in the Winston-Salem area to enable testing of longer-distance drone flights that could quickly deliver medical devices and medication.

The budget bill itself gives scant information about the AeroX initiatives the state is funding, describing the $5 million only as “for the development of an urban advanced air mobility system.” The N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation is overseeing the grant.

The leader of AeroX is Basil Yap, who’d previously worked for NCDOT overseeing its drone programs. Its board includes Michael Baughan, a former executive with B/E Aerospace Inc.

Yap and Baughan say AeroX aims to attract drone aviation start-ups to Winston-Salem by providing low-level radar and weather sensing systems that can be used for testing. Drones are already used for medical deliveries on short-distance flights, but the hope is to expand to longer flights that can connect major hospitals with rural clinics in need of deliveries.

“All of that stuff is going to massively transform aviation and create new jobs,” Baughan said. “We don’t want to rest on our laurels. We wanted to create jobs and wanted to be an attractive home for emerging companies that are trying to scale this technology.”

In addition to the technology needed for safe testing, AeroX plans to provide regulatory assistance to land any needed approvals with NCDOT and the Federal Aviation Administration, and help collect and produce data from test flights.

The nonprofit is primarily volunteer-run for now. The $5 million from the state budget and a $250,000 grant from Forsyth County are providing the seed money. The plan is for partnering companies to eventually pay annual fees to cover the costs of AeroX operations. 

Why Winston-Salem? Baughan and Yap say the city has an unusual advantage in Smith Reynolds Airport. It was built close to downtown and has the infrastructure for commercial flights but hasn’t hosted them since USAir pulled out two decades ago – the nearest commercial air traffic is at Greensboro’s airport.

“There’s no better place in North Carolina to pilot these activities and get them started than here,” said Baughan, who serves on Smith Reynolds’ board. The city is also home to major hospitals like Novant Forsyth Medical Center and Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, both of which are interested in using more drone flights. 

Angela Yochem, Novant’s chief transformation officer, serves on the AeroX advisory board, along with Baughan and Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough. Novant and Atrium are already partnering to use drones to deliver medical infusion supplies with a one-hour shelf life, Yap said. 

AeroX was able to get state budget support with the help of Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Winston-Salem Republican, former health care executive and a leading House budget writer. Lawmakers see potential for AeroX’s activities to eventually extend statewide.

“The lessons we learn in Winston-Salem will be applied elsewhere in the state,” Yap said.

With all the necessary funding secured, AeroX expects to see the first flights up and running by the end of 2022. More long-term, the nonprofit also wants to help test new passenger aircraft technologies that offer vertical takeoffs and landings – no airstrip required – without the noise and hassle of helicopters. That could also be useful in the medical world to transport doctors and patients to and from hard-to-reach areas. 

“We do see some really exciting opportunities for these types of aircraft as well,” Yap said.

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