Americas Civil GIS

Le Sueur County first to get FAA approval for drone operations



What once took months to process could now be available to Le Sueur County in just days. On top of that, the county is the first in Minnesota to have this type of technology advances available.

Le Sueur County has contracted with Tim Briggs, president of AeroLogix Consulting Inc., of New Prague, for use of his Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to collect high resolution aerial imagery. It used to be that the county contracted with a company to fly a piloted airplane over the area to collect imagery, which was typically done about every four years, Le Sueur County Geographic Information Systems Specialist Justin Lutterman said.

Now, should the county need it, Briggs could be available to collect imagery with his UAV, commonly referred to as a drone, within two hours of a phone call, process the imagery and have it in the hands of the county the next day.

“That turnaround time is important,” Lutterman said.

Getting FAA approval

But getting approval for use of the UAV has been a process.

Briggs came to the county commissioners meeting a year ago this month seeking approval of a proposed contract to provide the county with aerial survey and Geographic Information System imagery of Le Sueur County.

“The idea that I proposed to Le Sueur County is that we could create imagery on demand and it would be compatible with images like Google Earth and programs the county guys use. I would use the UAV instead of a conventionally piloted airplane, so it would be affordable,” Briggs said.

County Administrator Darrell Pettis said they were interested in the product.

“We are willing to work with our residents and small businesses to get things going because we really feel this is the future,” Pettis said.

Since Briggs’ first meeting with the county, he worked to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for UAV operations under the contract, which ended up to be about a year-long process. Final approval from the FAA was given in January and then Briggs began submitting paperwork for operation in Le Sueur County. Final clearance from the FAA was given on Aug. 25.

“We basically got everything we wanted in terms of airspace. We wanted to fly anywhere in Le Sueur County and we are able to do that with a few exceptions,” Briggs said.

He can’t operate within 2 miles of the Le Sueur and Mankato Airport and not over any densely populated area in the county. The UAV can’t fly within 500 feet of any structure.

“We heard from the FAA we are the first operation of this kind to be approved by them in Minnesota,” Briggs said.

Part of the requirement from the FAA for Briggs to get approved was that he had to work under contract of a government entity, which is why he approached the county.

Each time the UAV is flown, Briggs has to notify the FAA of the very specific airspace it will be flying in.

“I have to advise them of where I’m going to operate each time. I have to log every flight, the duration, where it flew and the altitude. I have to submit a report every month as to where we operated and how many hours. Any mishaps or anything have to be reported immediately,” Briggs said.

The FAA also said they would come out and inspect the operations, though Briggs is unsure when that will be.

He is still testing out the platforms to make sure the UAV operates correctly and has not started collecting imagery yet. Then he can collect images of land parcels, ditching systems, mining operations and other county land features that it can purchase from Briggs.

What this means for Le Sueur County

What this means for the county is that they can quickly get high-resolution images of the land to be used for many different purposes.

“The county needs imagery periodically for a lot of different things. They are primarily interested in survey of ditches in Le Sueur County that are used to drain farmland and wetlands to manage water runoff,” Briggs said.

Pettis said he hopes to get better aerial imagery of ditch surveys with the high resolution imagery.

“It’s harder to do because ditches are depressed into the ground and generally have a lot of weed coverage. It’s not easy to survey through aerial photography. We are also looking at watershed breaks to help us determine future ditch projects,” Pettis said.

Pettis said the county can also get accurate information about contour lines and elevations for road projects. They can also use this information to for sewer projects around lake systems.

With this information three-dimensional terrain models can be created.

This imagery can also be used for mapping and engineer and will be able to determine the exact longitude and latitude of where the image was taken.

Another area in which the county could benefit from this this type of aerial imagery is in the case of natural disaster response. That’s when the quick turnaround time would be beneficial.

“In the case of a flood, or tornado or some sort of disaster, if the county wants imagery we could quickly activate the airspace and quickly get imagery. We could be operational in two hours and those images could be very interesting,” Briggs said.

The county leaders are excited about this opportunity because of a wide range of uses it will have and it is also a cost savings because they will not have to hire a pilot to operate a conventional airplane for this work. Briggs’ services are free to the county unless the county chooses to purchase his images he collects. They are also excited about the qualifications Briggs has to be able to provide this scope of work to the county.

“Tim is uniquely qualified for this. He is a retired Navy sensor operator and has done contract work in the wars we’ve been in doing similar things. He also has a private pilot’s license. He has all the things needed to fly something like this safely, as well as collect imagery and processes it,” Lutterman said.

With tight regulations the FAA has, not many are approved to do this scope of work, but Briggs said he hopes to be able to contract with neighboring counties in the future.

“This technology is here and I don’t see it going anywhere unless the FAA prohibits it,” Briggs said.

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