Otter Tail County wants drone to survey, not to spy

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Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune 

FERGUS FALLS, MINN. - A few years ago, the folks in Otter Tail County thought they had come up with an efficient and inexpensive way to map county land and check for beaver dams in drainage ditches.

They built their own drone with a couple thousand dollars worth of computer equipment, a garage door remote control, a digital camera they bought at Wal-Mart, and a paper and balsa 9-pound plane anyone could buy on the Internet. Using GPS and Mosaic mapping equipment, they could survey 80 acres of farmland 400 feet overhead in about 20 minutes, a job that could take hours on foot in hip boots or cost thousands if they hired a pilot to fly overhead.

That was until the cease and desist letter came from the federal government. The plane has been grounded since then.

"Somebody from Washington called and said, 'What are you doing?' recalled Brian Armstrong, spatial address coordinator with the county's GIS Department. "I said, 'I'm doing this.' And he said, 'You can't do that.'"

County officials recently sought approval from the FAA to begin flying their drone again, in the process becoming embroiled in the larger debate over the increased domestic use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, more commonly known as drones. Otter Tail County showed up on a list of groups seeking to fly above U.S. skies that included the military, the FBI, Border and Customs Patrol, and NASA.

When the list was made public by a group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based consumer digital advocacy group, questions were raised among civil libertarians and conspiracy theorists about why the likes of quiet Otter Tail County in west-central Minnesota would need its own drone. Ever since, Brian Armstrong has been explaining that his drone would be used for surveying, not surveillance.

"I got caught up in the 'Why are you spying on us?' program," he said, "In other countries, people use this for monitoring crops, managing wildlife. There's a lot of uses people have for these small remote-controlled aircraft."

When it was operating, the Otter Tail County drone was never anything more than what you could fly with your kids in the park on a Sunday. Armstrong operated the plane with two people on each end of the flight path, with two additional spotters strictly to watch for "hot air balloons, 747s and fighter jets so it wouldn't crash into anybody at a whooping 400 feet above the ground," Armstrong said.

When he inquired about what would be needed to qualify for federal approval, he was told he had to be a registered pilot and that his ground crew needed to pass airmen physicals.

"All to sit in a lawn chair with a pair of binoculars to watch a plane 400 feet above the ground snapping photographs."

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Comment by Greg McHugh on March 7, 2013 at 8:15am

A question for the legal experts. Lets suppose that someone flying under the model aircraft drone exemption (e.g, a local RC Model club member, a Boy Scout looking for a community service project, just any model UAV enthusiast) took the initiative to voluntarily (with no compensation) collect the imagery following the FAA/AMA safety guidelines and put the data into the public domain and the folks at Otter Tail County used this data to accomplish their goals. To the layman this would appear to be legal but would it be legal under the current FAA policies?

I will write up a specific topic on my interest in finding a way to facilitate community service projects using model aircraft. I guess the first question to answer is regarding the legality of this type of activity given the current FAA policies on domestic drone activities. There seems to be a lot of concern regarding the possible future outcomes of the FAA policies and the recent Alitalia drone encounter has raised the fear level on the possibilities of bans on model drone activities. I would propose that a proactive approach to getting recognition of the value of "good" drones might include the use of model aircraft drones in volunteer community service projects. I have some ideas on this that I will share under another topic. But question one, would it be legal?

 

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