Otter Tail County wants drone to survey, not to spy

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2012 - 10:06 PM

Feds ground balsa wood plane used for checking beaver dams.

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Brian Armstrong was told by the FAA to stop using this drone to gather geological information in Otter Tail County where he is the head of the geographical information department.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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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."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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