Drone on

Unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as drones, have opened up a new world of flying to people in Minnesota: from farm fields to the photo darkroom.

A drone flies over the Ironton Barstool races in February. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)
A drone flies over the Ironton Barstool races in February. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

Unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as drones, have opened up a new world of flying to people in Minnesota: from farm fields to the photo darkroom.

Jerry Ecklund of Walker uses his Phantom II Vision+ drone for his hobby of aerial photography. The 14 megapixel camera doesn't have as sharp of an image quality as the digital single-lens reflex camera he uses to get pictures on foot, but the drone means he can get shots and photo subjects he couldn't capture otherwise. In January of 2015, he flew his drone 100 feet above the ice heave on Leech Lake, and the ensuing video has more than 3,300 views so far on YouTube.

When he takes his drone out of its case to put in the air, it always attracts a crowd.

"It's kind of like a bug zapper with bugs," he said. "Everybody wants to see what you're doing."

Operators can see what the camera sees via an app on a smartphone, but the disadvantage is that too many Wi-Fi networks in the area can confuse the drone.


Ecklund is thinking of upgrading soon, possibly to a drone with retractable landing gear. The bigger drones that can carry a DSLR camera underneath them are a bit out of his comfort zone, though.

"I'm definitely not into that," he said with a laugh. "I don't trust them enough to strap my camera into them and go up for a flight."

Steve Fines already has a drone that can carry a DSLR, which he uses for his St. Cloud-based aerial photography startup, Wingnut Aerial Imaging. He estimates he practiced for 40-50 hours with cheaper drones before making the leap to the eight-rotor commercial grade drone, which costs five figures. Wind is OK, but he avoids flying it in rain or fog because the condensation can interfere with the drone's electronics.

"They're really easy to fly, right up until the moment that they're not," he said. "Which is when they crash."

As a result of his practice time, though, Fines said he's never crashed while flying the fancy eight-rotor drone for work. Fines uses the rig to film buildings for promotional material, and he also does 3D mapping.

Federal Aviation Administration rules that exist today mean companies have to get specific permission before they can fly drones, which are otherwise banned from commercial use. Journalists and other commercial operators must have a pilot's license for conventional aircraft before they can fly drones.

However, a pending rule change that the FAA hopes to have in place by this summer likely means there will be a general allowance for companies to use drones without getting special permission.

The FAA also launched a streamlined registration process for drones, so operators can do it online. Since the system went live March 30, drone operators don't have as much hassle to get the registration they need in order to receive the commercial exemption.


"Previously, these UAS owners had to fill out paper aircraft registration forms and physically mail them to the FAA Registry in Oklahoma City," the FAA said on its webpage. "The process often took weeks to accomplish because of the volume of requests the Registry was receiving."

Fines already had his pilot's license, so it wasn't an obstacle for him in getting permission.

Apart from the FAA, there aren't many rules in place for drones, Fines said. He said he's never been hassled by regular people on the street, either-except once.

"I've put in literally hundreds of hours, and had hundreds of people ... come up to me, they're just excited," he said.

However, one job called for him to film the exterior of an apartment complex with the drone. The apartment complex in question was next to a trailer park.

"Two people from the trailer park got almost violent with me," Fines said. "It was scary. I just packed up and left. I didn't find out what they were upset about."

There's an unreasonable suspicion that drones can be used for snooping, Fines said, but most drone cameras only reach about as far as the camera on a smartphone-not good for recording video on the sly.

"A drone is like, the worst tool ever to spy on somebody," he said. "It's noisy, and it's got flashing lights, and it's really far away."


In addition to photography, drone imaging can also help central Minnesota farmers, Fines said. Technology already exists whereby farmers can use drones equipped with normalized difference vegetation index cameras to scan their fields. NDVI can tell farmers whether they need more or less fertilizer in certain spot, for example, Fines said.

Drones can also be programmed to flown in tandem, and since sprayers have been adapted to be mounted on drones, you may soon see a squadron of them spraying a field in place of a crop duster plane.

"That is such a game-changer as opposed to doing it ... with an airplane, a helicopter, because it's dramatically cheaper," he said.

Not only can drones save money, but they can also save lives. The combination of forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras with drones can aid search and rescue operations, "infinitely more efficiently than a group on the ground," Fines said.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or . Follow him on Twitter at .

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