Flying a drone outside FAA rules brings mixed scrutiny


Mitch LeClair

It’s illegal to use an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, for commercial purposes without Federal Aviation Administration approval.

But unauthorized operators rarely face a penalty. At least five have nationwide, with one in Minnesota and none in the St. Cloud area.

From aerial photography to precision agriculture, commercial operations are taking place in front yards and fields across the country, including ones in Central Minnesota.

Two business uses in Minnesota have received federal approval for their UAVs, or drones. Others are operating without an explicit OK.

One is Anez Consulting, a Little Falls- and Willmar-based agronomy company that covered about 10,000 acres with its UAV last year, according to crop adviser Michael Dunn.

He said the eBee device allows Anez to take pictures of fields, then build 3-D models. This lets consultants check yields and identify potential problems more efficiently.

One of the most exciting applications, Dunn said, is seeing relative biomass in different field zones; less light and reduced airflow makes these areas more prone to disease. Instead of figuring an overall average for needed chemicals or minerals, then applying it to an entire field, the zoned data allows farmers to spray more precisely.

Anez’s fixed-wing aircraft made by senseFly, a Parrot company, weighs about 2 pounds and cost about $25,000 with software, Dunn said. Flights can last longer than a half hour.

He said he knows of other businesses using UAVs, including a few taking advantage of cheaper, more basic quadcopters for aerial imagery.

Dunn said Anez isn’t receiving any compensation for the flights it’s conducting with the eBee. That and other considerations have kept him comfortable operating the drone without an exemption from the FAA.

A 2012 law tasked the FAA to create rules for UAVs. In February, the agency released its proposed guidelines for operations outside of hobby or governmental use. A public comment period on those rules ends Friday.

In recent weeks, the agency has loosened requirements, streamlined processes and accelerated its pace in approving commercial operations.

As of last week, the FAA had granted exemptions to almost 190 operations, including 120 in April, and processed about one-quarter of applications it had received.

Dunn said a previous requirement for a private pilot certificate was one factor preventing Anez from applying for an exemption. That prerequisite has changed to a recreational or sport pilot certificate, and a driver’s license can now stand in for a third-class medical certificate.

The Morrison County-based agronomist said he hasn’t had any problems with the FAA or local authorities.

The Times spoke with law enforcement leaders in Stearns, Benton and Morrison counties, along with the city of St. Cloud. No officers in those departments have observed commercial UAV operations or reported any to the FAA, according to sheriffs and St. Cloud Chief Blair Anderson.

“I don’t know anybody around here that’s using them for a business reason,” Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said, adding that a farmer using one is a possibility.

Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen said the only experience his staff has had with UAVs is during some interactions with Camp Ripley and its military drones.

Benton County Sheriff Troy Heck said if his officers observed an unmanned machine threatening public safety, their action would be like that for a manned vehicle: respond and do their best to neutralize the issue. And if the office suspected an operation violated FAA rules, Heck said he would forward information to that agency.

A few months ago, the FAA released guidance for law enforcement on suspected illegal commercial use of UAVs. In those recommendations, the federal agency asks officers and first responders to identify witnesses, operators and aspects of the scene; document the scene; conduct interviews; collect evidence; and notify the FAA.

The agency notes processes such as arrest and detention or nonconsensual searches would rarely be allowable with UAV operations, unless a criminal investigation is taking place.

Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the Minnesota State Patrol said her agency has received the law enforcement guidance from the FAA and reports any suspected illegal use of UAVs to the federal agency’s district office in Minneapolis.

Kevin Morris works for the FAA at that location and confirmed his office receives reports of suspected illegal use from its service area, which includes a slice of western Wisconsin.

It’s unclear how many reports the FAA has received of suspected illegal UAV operations in Minnesota. But according to a metro-area attorney, it’s at least one.

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