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Holly Springs drone program is ‘first in flight’ of its kind

The Town of Holly Springs is a place of unexpected juxtapositions.

It’s the kind of town where one can take in the natural beauty of Bass Lake, but it’s also home to life science company Seqirus, a world leader in flu vaccine development and research. It’s a place where you can run into friends and neighbors, and also rub shoulders with fellow entrepreneurs at Coworking Station, which will expand later this year in Holly Springs’ new downtown development The Block on Main.

Holly Springs is a town that’s working to maintain its idyllic charm while also forging a path of innovation, economic development, and advancement, and soon, another unique novelty will be on the town’s horizon — literally.

“The first time I saw a drone fly, I was amazed by its ability to go where you told it to go, its ability to take pictures — it really sparked my interest,” recalled Aaron Levitt, Town of Holly Springs assistant director of engineering.

Levitt first witnessed a drone take flight in 2015, and realizing the vast capabilities of drone technology, built one right away. As a civil engineer, he knew it could help with his work. A recurring challenge for civil engineers is designing plans from an aerial perspective and then trying to make sense of them from on the ground when standing on a thousand-acre construction site for example.

Drones made the transition between design and construction better and Levitt started to share his findings with colleagues. After developing a town Drone Users Program that trained up drone pilots internally for things like site inspections and environmental assessments of town construction projects, Levitt got wind of the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program.

The UAS Integration Pilot Program is a federal program that allows test sites across the country to finance drone programs with money from private sector entities “to test and evaluate the integration of civil and public drone operations into our national airspace system.” The program aims to assist the United States Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to craft new rules that support “more complex low-altitude operations.”

“I went to NCDOT, who I’d been working with on our Drone Users Program. I knew that they were preparing an application into this pilot program, and I asked if we could be on their team and they agreed. We got selected,” Levitt said.

Holly Springs has begun implementing its three-year drone program and is currently in its initial phase.

“This is new territory and it is uncharted territory. We’re kind of venturing into the unknown in terms of being a test site,” admitted Holly Springs Town Manager Randy Harrington.

However, as an applicant, the town appealed to stakeholders. Holly Springs’ usage of drones, its open air space, and its suburban layout made it a perfect test site and in 2018 it was added to the UAS program.

During the town’s application process, Flytrex, a commercial drone delivery startup, approached them about becoming a partner. Flytrex is credited with developing the world’s first drone-delivery-based network and works to deliver parcels to pick-up locations that are communicated to a user via text message.

“We are a suburban community and that’s where this kind of [drone] technology works best. We’re close to the airport, but not too close where the airspace starts to get a little restricted. It was a good fit,” Levitt explained of the Flytrex partnership. “When we found out that Flytrex was responsible for the first drone deliveries on the globe, we got very excited.”

To make sense of all the moving pieces and partners of this pilot program: NCDOT acts as the primary lead and works with the FAA, Flytrex provides the technology, Causey Aviation provides operations and pilots the drones using the Flytrex technology, and finally, Holly Springs is the host of the program and provides citizen outreach and education.

Levitt described the town “as the glue that binds all partners together.”

The town’s initial usage of drones included using the aircraft for things like civil, engineering and technical projects. Additionally, they were used for site flyovers during economic development site assessments. Now, during its initial phase of the UAS Pilot Program, Holly Springs is embarking on a new drone venture — food delivery.

“A Flytrex drone will essentially be able to distribute food orders to people. Interested users will use the Flytrex app to order food off a menu and then their lunch will come to them,” explained Levitt.

Think of this as a drone Grubhub or Uber Eats of sorts — instead of a driver delivering your food, it will be dropped off by a drone.

Flytrex and Causey Aviation (a private jet charter, jet management and aircraft maintenance provider) have partnered with several restaurants in the Holly Springs Towne Center to deliver food to people in Ting Park. Food is picked up by drone from a distribution center and then dropped off by drone at a location in the park.

Once the program rolls out, residents can download the Flytrex app on their phone, order food and retrieve their food order at Ting Park. While it’s not exactly home delivery, Levitt believes enough people will be enthusiastic about the possibility of using drones and will want to participate. He also emphasized this is an exciting opportunity for business owners.

“Restaurants will be able to look at Flytrex as kind of like one extra table they have,” Levitt offered. “Right now, Ting Park is the first public site where food delivery will be available. We’ll need to prove that this delivery route is acceptable and safe before we approach the option of residential neighborhoods. Backyard deliveries will hopefully be rolled out in the next phase of our program.”

Levitt is aware this may cause some residents concern over privacy and safety issues, but he assures the drones will only fly in daylight under FAA guidelines and restrictions. Additionally, Flytrex drones do not have cameras — just GPS technology to ensure package delivery runs smoothly.

All are also equipped with backup motors, extra batteries and GPS devices. Most importantly, both Flytrex and Causey Aviation have on-site offices in Holly Springs and will be able to assist should any problems arise.

For Holly Springs, this is just the beginning of drone capabilities. Levitt hopes drone usage in town will expand to more personal deliveries, like at-home medicine delivery services.

The NCDOT is using drones for crash reconstruction by getting digital copies of the accident scenes. Additionally, there are economic and environmental benefits to consider — with less cars on the road for simple deliveries like food and medicine, the impact could be major.

“This could really impact people’s lives. How does reducing the need to drive 15 minutes across town to pick up lunch better your day? How does it improve traffic? Drones allow us to make better decisions by providing us with better information, quicker, which results in cost savings and improved services for our residents,” Levitt said. “Drone usage is putting Holly Springs in the forefront of technology. We’re looking at an economic landscape moving forward where technology is going to dominate. If you’re not learning about this technology at the very least, you’re going to be left behind.”

Original Article Source: WRAL TechWire