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FAA red tape grounds Otter Tail County, Minn.’s drone used for mapping

By: Marino Eccher, Forum Communications Grand Forks Herald

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — The foam-and-balsa-wood gizmo sitting idle in the offices of Otter Tail County isn’t exactly the spitting image of the sleek unmanned warplanes the word “drone” brings to mind.

Its mission is to photograph drainage ditches, not enemy targets. At 6 pounds, it would be hard-pressed to take down a cow, let alone blow up a building.

But thanks to Federal Aviation Administration rules that make little distinction between tiny model helicopters and the high-tech weapons platforms favored by the U.S. military, you won’t see it in the sky any time soon.

The county acquired the drone in 2006. It was supposed to streamline surveying and planning operations, said Brian Armstrong, the spatial and address coordinator for the county’s Geographic Information Systems department.

Armstrong and his colleagues saw it as a cheaper, easier alternative to manned aerial photography or trudging to tough locations on foot to collect data. If a drainage system was blocked, for instance, the county could send the drone to snap a photo rather than “putting two guys in a canoe and spend two or three days fighting our way up there,” he said.

So, they bought the plane — a $250 model much like something found at a hobby store — outfitted it with a camera and a GPS system, and hooked it up to a computer system that could program flight plans.

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