Darshan Divakaran, UAS Program Engineer in the Division of Aviation at North Carolina Department of Transportation. Image: NCDOT

Interview: Darshan Divakaran of North Carolina Department of Transportation


The US state of North Carolina has a special place in the history of aviation: it is where the Wright brothers made their first powered flight, at Kitty Hawk in 1903; “First in flight”, one reads on the license plates of cars in the state. North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has been developing c-drone use case projects for over five years in public safety, inspections, and other activities. This experience was invaluable when Hurricane Florence wreaked havoc in the Carolinas last September; NCDOT took an active role in deploying drones in the aftermath. This August, NCDOT will hold the North Carolina Drone Summit & Flight Expo in Greensboro.

Darshan Divakaran is UAS Program Engineer in the Division of Aviation at NCDOT and has been actively involved in promoting the safe use of drones across state agencies and in the private sector. We spoke at the Commercial UAV Expo Europe in Amsterdam following a presentation he made at a public safety panel. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: At the Commercial UAV Expo Europe with Darshan Divakaran. Darshan, I think I saw in your presentation earlier that you have 15 drone teams at the North Carolina Department of Transportation? You spoke about accident scene investigations, and also the response to Hurricane Florence last year. Can you tell me what some of those other teams are doing?

Darshan Divakaran: So, I’ll correct you. The 15 teams that I mentioned were the Hurricane Florence response team, and that was a mix of the public and private sectors working together. From the private sector, there was DroneScape, PrecisionHawk, North State Engineering, and S&ME. And from the public sector, there was North Carolina State Highway Patrol, North Carolina Emergency Management, North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy, and finally NCDOT. There were 15 teams among these that participated; each team had two to three pilots. So, a lot of good pilots came together, to provide services for the state post-hurricane.

NCDOT has over 20 pilots and we have over 30 aircraft. They are spread all around the state. NCDOT has 14 divisions and each of these divisions has a different focus, such as rail, highways, aviation, etc. My group is aviation, and the Division of Aviation leads the drone program for the state. We have different training initiatives and [FAA] Part 107 training class. Our focus is to ensure, after your Part 107, you still need to go through a number of training classes to become proficient in flying. That is where DOT takes training seriously. We are the first state in the nation to promote drone safety and initiated the NC Drone Safe initiative.

Q: Great. Now, you mentioned rail and road. So these are infrastructure projects, inspection? What’s that about?

Darshan Divakaran: North Carolina DOT manages all the infrastructure for the state, including roads, which is the second largest road network after Texas. We maintain rail corridors, airports, and we have extensive highways and all connections. Drones are now playing an integral role in inspecting this routinely. Also, after a disaster, we go back and check that the infrastructure has not been badly affected for public transportation.

Q: When speaking about emergency services, the police, how does it work for the drone teams? Are they well integrated with the emergency services? Do the police officers, people in the emergency services, do they welcome the drone people onto their teams?

Darshan Divakaran: Yes. In our state, we have educated our public safety agencies on drone use and how to integrate drones into routine operations. NCDOT has organized workshops and training classes for the public safety agencies, to bring their pilots up to speed on drone use. We show the positive side of drones, and we try to see how an agency can benefit from it, how they can build a UAS program, what sort of drones do they really need for the operations. We help them out with that.

NCDOT has helped build drone programs for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, for the Department of Labor, local police departments, fire departments, etc. We are presently also working with Department of Homeland Security, showing the benefits of drones. It’s important to get the right tools to our public safety agencies, and to make sure that they are safe to use and that they know how to use it safely.

Q: I wrote recently about the UPS-Matternet project. Now, if I understood correctly, it’s starting off with just short hops across the campus, four minutes. However, I read that ultimately, there may be longer trips. Would that be with Matternet, or with Zipline, or Flytrex? Maybe you can tell me about your plans.

Darshan Divakaran: Sure. So the whole plan under the [Federal Aviation Administration] Integration Pilot Program for North Carolina was how to get routine delivery — medical or food delivery. And it has to start through small steps. So, the route that we got most recently approved, UPS and Matternet partnered and this was the first routine revenue delivery approved by the FAA in the nation. So it was a big initiative. Yes, the distance between point A and point B was less than a couple of minutes, but the thing is that same distance, traditionally, would take up to 15 to 20 minutes to reach, and that is where we have reduced the time and this helps people get quicker access to healthcare.

Moving forward, we have already started working out the plan for longer distance, Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) operations. Matternet will soon be submitting their waiver for this, they will most probably be the first to get approved. Whereas Flytrex is going to be doing their first food delivery flight in the town of Holly Springs. It will be only a month or two from now. Zipline is another company that’s working in a big way for Beyond Visual Line Of Sight. Their whole company’s focus is large areas, remote areas. So they are also going to be working in the next couple of months. These companies are opening the way for future delivery systems in North Carolina; they are bringing change and helping the FAA create new rules and regulations. And NCDOT is glad to be a part of this, assisting FAA to make it easy for future companies to provide the services.

Q: All right Darshan, thank you very much for meeting us today.

Darshan Divakaran: Thank you.