This month, a bright yellow remote-controlled aircraft with a 13-foot wingspan will take to the skies over the Le Sueur County farmlands.

Its mission: Taking high resolution photographs that will help the county map drainage ditches.

It doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting assignment for a drone, and that’s partly the point.

“The message we’re trying to get out is, we’re not doing surveillance,” said Tim Briggs, a retired U.S. Navy officer who is president of AeroLogix GIS. “We’re not spying on people.”

Briggs said he’s the first commercial drone operator in Minnesota to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. Officially, Le Sueur County has the FAA’s “certificate of waiver or authorization,” because most for-profit entities haven’t been able to get permits to fly drones. Briggs has a contract with the county to do the work.

These are heady times for drone entrepreneurs. By the end of the year, the FAA will develop rules to open the airspace to small commercial unmanned aircraft systems. More than 90 companies nationwide have already petitioned the agency to get a jump on the expected drone race, and in recent weeks, the FAA granted seven petitions to companies to do film and video production, said Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman.

Not everyone is excited about the coming swarm of robotic air traffic. The potential for cameras hovering over homes and sidewalks, tracking someone’s every movement, has led to bipartisan proposals to limit the use of drones for surveillance.

It hasn’t helped that the government has been less than forthcoming about domestic drone operations. Journalists and civil liberties groups have had to file Freedom of Information Act requests to find out the names of the 1,500 permitted drone operators. The list is heavy on law enforcement, the military and universities. In Minnesota, the U.S. Border Patrol, the Army National Guard, the University of North Dakota and two units of the University of Minnesota have received drone privileges.

Not every government agency gets permission. When Otter Tail County tried to fly its own drone to check for beaver dams a few years ago, the FAA ordered it to stop.

“What we’re trying to achieve is to allow at least some limited commercial use of unmanned aircraft without posing danger to other airplanes or property on the ground,” Dorr said. “The FAA is a safety agency. We don’t really have the expertise to write privacy regulations, but we acknowledge those issues have to be addressed.”

Briggs is keenly aware of the public concerns about drones. The bigger obstacles have been government red tape and putting together a remote-controlled aircraft that can do the job.

After retiring from a 22-year active duty Navy career, Briggs started doing contract work with the Army. He installed and maintained geospatial photography systems in manned aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the off hours, he and others flew remote-controlled planes for fun.

Back home in New Prague, Briggs had an idea how to turn that hobby into a business. He approached the Le Sueur County board in 2013 with a proposal to do small-scale, on-demand imagery that could give them better information about what was happening on the land. Briggs said it could cost up to $80,000 to get fairly low-resolution images from a conventional flight. Briggs said he and the county agreed to a bargain price of $500 to $750 for the photographing a square mile.

After two previous models didn’t work out, Briggs cobbled together the craft he thinks can fulfill the mission. He bought the fiberglass and foam-core airframe from a company in the Czech Republic. Hobby dealers supplied most of the other equipment. A little door on the belly of the craft swings to the side when the camera is ready to take pictures. The whole thing weighs 23 pounds and costs $5,500 to $6,000, Briggs said.

Briggs also took charge of getting permission from the FAA. What was advertised as 60- to 90-day process took a year. Briggs agreed to stay 2 miles away from the two airports in the county, as well as all of the major settlements. The drone can fly 200 to 300 feet above the ground, except over structures, where it must stay 500 feet above them. It cannot go any higher than 600 feet.

Compared to the military’s fearsome-looking drones, which carry names like “Predator” and “Reaper,” Briggs’ smiley-face-yellow aircraft looks like a different animal. When the “AeroLogix GeoStar” swoops over the pastures and cornfields east of the Minnesota River, Briggs hopes people will see that there’s no reason to run and hide.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.