City drone grounded until FAA rules clarified


J.L. Atyeo

City staff thought a drone would take Sioux Falls parks and construction projects to new heights, but plans have been put on hold until the federal government issues new rules for the devices.

The city of Sioux Falls purchased a $1,200 drone this summer. It’s a lightweight, remote-controlled device with four propellers and a GoPro camera attached.

The plan was to fly over city parks and make some bird’s-eye-view promotional videos and to capture time-lapse photos of big construction projects. City staff made a few flights this summer but have since grounded the drone until they get the go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“We’re still hopeful we’ll be able to use it again,” director of Central Services Sue Quanbeck Etten said.

She said city staff became interested in drones when prices came down dramatically.

“We’re always trying to keep up with the latest technology,” Quanbeck Etten said.

The done allows aerial photos without an expensive helicopter trip.

This summer, city staff flew the drone overhead as construction crews poured concrete on West 41st Street and got shots of backhoes digging a trench for a sewer line in southeast Sioux Falls.

Previously, those shots would have to come from the roof of a building or the bucket of a construction truck, which wasn’t always possible, City Planning Engineer Chad Huwe explained.

He said his department will use the drone sporadically.

“We’re not using it to monitor traffic,” he said. “It’s not replacing people.”

The University of South Dakota has grounded its drone as well.

The school bought a model costing just over $1,000 to create marketing videos. School officials filmed on campus during move-in day and hired a company to make a promotional video.

“Video is increasingly important in reaching perspective students,” USD spokeswoman Tena Haraldson said.

The FAA is behind the curve when it comes to making rules for drones, she said.

“People are nervous about them because they are a new technology,” she said. “They’re everywhere, and hopefully the federal regulations will catch up.”

Like Sioux Falls, USD is in the process of applying with the FAA for permission to fly. Under current rules, anyone flying a drone or a model airplane for anything other than a hobby needs a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval, according to FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.

She said the FAA plans to publish new rules later this year for all small, unmanned aircraft — those 55 pounds or fewer. The change could allow companies to use drones for profit, in certain tightly controlled, low-risk situations.

That’s what Sioux Falls pilot Chris Matson is hoping for.

He’s been a private pilot for almost 20 years, flying cargo for Landmark Aviation.

He had a plan to make a business out of drones. He bought a $400 remote-controlled airplane and added a GoPro camera, plus extra video equipment to allow him to see in real time what his plane is seeing.

His plan was to start the South Dakota Aerial Drone Service and offer to fly it for area law enforcement agencies, farmers or anyone who wanted an aerial view. He filmed a wedding video, giving an 800-foot view of wedding guests at the bride’s parents’ farm.

Matson sees all kinds of ways to put drones to use: Police could use it to find a missing child, the fire department could get a different view of a burning building, and farmers could use it find a lost cow or check on calves.

“It would be just so easy,” he said.

Now, South Dakota Aerial Drone Service is just a Facebook page while Matson waits for FAA rules.

“I’m in the same boat as everyone else,” he said. “It’s just a hobby now.”

The city’s drone

Model: DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter

Cost: $1,200

Camera: GoPro, purchased separately

Weight: 2 pounds

Length: Just under 14 inches, diagonally

Max speed: 30 mph

Flight time: 25 minutes

Source: City of Sioux Falls and

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