A Thomson Reuters photographer has been hovering a drone over a field in Eagan once or twice a week, capturing its transformation into a crop art reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s “Olive Trees.”
Or he was, until the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) got word of it.
Last week, the department ordered Thomson Reuters and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which commissioned artist Stan Herd to create the image, to stop flying the drone. It’s happening more often as people launch drones without proper licenses, occasionally interfering with flights, said Tara Kalar, associate legal counsel at MnDOT.
The regulations governing drone use are not always clear, said Rick King, Thomson Reuters’ chief operating officer for technology. King is also on the Metropolitan Airports Commission. He said this situation shows the need for more education and clear policy on drone use.
“It is a case of — Gee, what applies here and what are those rules?” he said. “We’ll do what we need to do to be legitimate.”
The drone capturing the artwork has been grounded since the company got MnDOT’s letter, King said. But he hopes to continue using it once they straighten some things out, like whether taking photos of the field is a commercial or hobby use.
Regardless, the project is on track to be completed by Sept. 10, Mia spokeswoman Anne-Marie Wagener said in an e-mail, deferring additional comment to Thomson Reuters.
There are four commercially registered drones in Minnesota. Their owners had to get a federal exemption and state registration and license to operate legally, Kalar said. There would be snow on the ground before Thomson Reuters could complete that process, she said.
MnDOT has sent about a dozen cease-and-desist letters to people and companies that seemed to be operating drones commercially without proper registration and licensure, Kalar said. The state agency is developing a response that could include prosecution, she said.
King said they were not using the drone for commercial purposes. “We were basically recording an event and giving the picture to the MIA and the crop guy,” King said.
Kalar said determining use can be complicated.
She was at a St. Paul Saints game last month where one of the crowd games had a drone.
“I’m sitting there thinking. Is this commercial?” she said.
However, the commercial debate could be moot, because the Eagan crop art is in the approach zone to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Kalar said. Planes fly over the crop artwork about every 90 seconds, allowing passengers an aerial view of “Olive Trees.”
Drones are never allowed in the approach area of an airport, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said in an e-mail.
Thomson Reuters staff thought they were following requirements for drones near an airport, and the photographer kept the device comparatively low, about 200 to 250 feet, King said.
When drones fly near planes, it can be unnerving for pilots, said Rick Braunig, MnDOT’s manager of aviation safety and enforcement. They’re hard to spot, and pilots have just seconds to react, he said.
The number of reports from pilots to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of unmanned aircraft, such as drones, has shot up from 238 sightings in 2014 to more than 650 as of Aug. 9 this year, according to FAA data.
“So many people go out and buy a drone and don’t understand anything about airspace, and the restrictions that come with operating in the airspace,” Braunig said.