By Eric Lyttle The Columbus Dispatch
NEWARK, Ohio — As a kid, Todd Fortune spent hours messing around with his small collection of remote-control airplanes, fine-tuning his ability to maneuver a toy aircraft using just his two thumbs on a controller.
Now, he’s applying those skills for Licking County’s Planning and Development department, flying a new county-owned, unmanned aircraft — commonly known as a drone — outfitted with a camera to provide aerial perspectives on potential planning and development areas.
It’s believed to be the only county planning department in the state and one of the only local-government agencies of any kind in Ohio to be using a drone.
Last week, however, an email from the Federal Aviation Administration left Licking County’s use of the drone in question. An FAA official said that any governmental use of an unmanned aircraft requires an FAA-issued certificate of authorization.
Fortune doesn’t have one. After researching drone use, he thought he didn’t need one for any flights below 400 feet.
He’s not the only one confused. Both state and federal legislation is pending to help clarify the rules, including an FAA proposal that would relax requirements for using micro-drones (those that are less than 4.4 pounds), such as Licking County’s.
“It’s arguably a gray area,” said Jerry Newton, director of the Licking County Planning & Development Department. “The technology is going much faster than our federal regulations. I guess we won’t have it in the air until we get more clarification.”
The drone’s benefits, however, are hard to deny.
• • •
Fortune approached Newton, his boss, last year about buying a drone. Newton dismissed it.
“I didn’t think we needed it,” Newton said.
But when he unexpectedly was thrust into service with only two weeks to spare to make a presentation to the Ohio Transportation Review Advisory Council for money for a $31 million interchange project, Newton remembered the drone.
“For years, our community has been trying to explain the backups and safety issues surrounding that intersection,” Newton said. “I thought, ‘Let’s show it.’ ”
Fortune spent $1,300 on a DJI Phantom II Vision Plus. Two weeks later, high-definition aerial video of the backed-up traffic at the long-problematic Rt. 16/Cherry Valley Road intersection was incorporated into a 10-minute video presentation to the transportation board.
While others were giving testimony and using PowerPoint presentations, Newton’s video, with aerial views of the problem and aerials overlaid on an engineer’s drawing of the proposed fix, “wowed” the room, said Licking County Commissioner Tim Bubb. “People were coming up, saying, ‘You guys have raised the bar on how we have to present to TRAC.’ ”
A month later, the Ohio Department of Transportation approved their proposal.
“It’s changing the game,” Bubb said. “We’re strategically using this to create video that makes a difference, providing views that we normally wouldn’t have. Why wouldn’t we use another set of eyes?” Since then, the department has found plenty of other uses for its drone.
On May 20, Fortune and Newton took the drone to the county’s historic jailhouse. The county is beginning a three-month, $230,000 project to clean the soot-black exterior of the 126-year-old sandstone building.
With the high-pitched buzz of an angry hornet’s nest, the blades of the 3-pound quad-copter whirred into action. Fortune raised the drone off the ground, letting it hover about 4 feet before, with a flick of his thumb, it zipped straight up to a height of about 100 feet. Fortune maneuvered the craft around the jail’s exterior, taking video close-ups for a before-and-after presentation, requested by Bubb, of the renewed jail.
The planning and development department also used the drone to take aerial photos and videos of other projects, including Buckeye Lake; a logjam problem in Hanover; a ditch-maintenance issue in Hebron; and to chart the progress of Newark’s two-year, $20 million sewer-replacement and streetscape renovation.
“It’s a good thing (Fortune) learned to do this as a kid,” Newton said. “There are so many possible uses.”
• • •
But navigating through the labyrinth of information and interpretations of what’s legal isn’t as easy. A day after buzzing the historic courthouse, Newton grounded the drone after learning that FAA approval was required.
Newton said his department researched governmental drone usage extensively and asked for an opinion from the Licking County prosecutor’s office.
“We thought we were doing everything correctly. But once you have a layer of information that you didn’t have before, you do the right thing,” he said.
Now, Licking County will apply for the federal certificate. As a government agency, the county can self-certify its drone’s airworthiness. But an FAA representative must review the operator’s skill.
The turnaround time to acquire a certificate is about 60 days, Newton said.
Jason Gadrim, a patrolman with the Logan police department and an unmanned-aerial-systems hobbyist, knows Newton’s frustration at the conflicting body of laws and proposals.
Gadrim built his own remote-control aircraft and was beginning to use it for police work when he was put in touch with the FAA. They told him he not only needed federal approval but also a private pilot’s license if he was getting paid to operate his drone, which also is significantly larger than Licking County’s.
His department stopped using it for police work while Gadrim worked to acquire certification. He’s in the process of getting a private pilot’s license.
He said the delay has been frustrating, as there have been many instances in the past year in which a drone could have saved time, money and, perhaps, lives.
“We have a bunch of hills, a bunch of cornfields, a bunch of places to hide or get lost down here,” Gadrim said. “If we have a lost kid, I can put my (drone) up and search a field in 15 minutes that would take us five hours to search on foot. If we’re pursuing a suspect and he bails out of a car and runs into a cornfield, I can put (it) up and spot him quickly.
“There are lots of uses, and its time is coming,” Gadrim said. “But we stopped using it. We didn’t want to become the test case for not complying with the rules.”