MN County receives FAA UAV approval

By Emily Aasand | September 18, 2014

Le Sueur County became the first county in Minnesota to be granted the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to fly unmanned aerial vehicles to collect high resolution aerial imagery.

Le Sueur County contracted with Tim Briggs, president of AeroLogix Consulting Inc of New Prague, Minn.

“Being able to fly a small-scale UAV at a moment’s notice is a big advantage,” said Justin Lutterman, Le Sueur Count geographic information systems manager. “If we can pinpoint specific areas that we want to fly, we’re hoping to use this to save money.”

Briggs comes from a background of military sensor operations. After retiring from the U.S. Navy where he was a sensor operator who flew various aircraft, Briggs began working on the contractor side of military programs for the U.S. Army to create geospatial information used for military purposes.

“With a lifelong interest in radio-controlled airplanes and the technology of imaging and creating geospatial imagery and processing everything that goes with that, I was looking to start my own business,” said Briggs. “I knew the technology was out there, UAVs were capable of carrying cameras and the processing software was available commercially, so I kind of put all the pieces together.”

Under current FAA regulations, there was only one way for Briggs to start his own UAV business and that was to contract the services out to a government entity.

“After researching the laws, I realized I could do this under a contract style arrangement with a government entity, so I approached the county I lived in [Le Sueur], proposed what I wanted to do and what I could offer them, and found out that the service was really needed in the county,” said Briggs.

Briggs first proposed the idea to Lutterman and together they went to the county commissioners and eventually established a contract.

According to Lutterman, the county has a lot of use for the new technology.

“We’d be able to measure volume from gravel pits—how much volume of material has been taken out because that’s actually how we assess the property,” said Justin Lutterman, Le Sueur County Geographic Information Systems Manager. “If there’s ever a new road, we’d be able to fly the corridor to try to plan it out to minimize costs. We’d also be able to use the aerial imagery for law enforcement, county assessors and appraisers and for real-estate.”

It took Briggs and the county nearly a year to receive a Certificate of Approval (COA) from the FAA.

“That legal process was pretty lengthy,” said Briggs.

Briggs and the county received about 97 percent of the airspace that they wanted, with a few provisions of not being able to operate within two miles of the airports and not operating over any of the densely populated towns, according to Briggs.

Briggs will be flying a 4 meter sailplane that he has modified himself to accommodate the needs of his business. The UAV will have up to 45 minutes of endurance and include a camera internally for aerodynamic and recovery purposes.

“I’ve been working on modifying it all summer—the COA process and the building process kind of coincided,” said Briggs. “The airplane was pretty much completed as we got approval from the FAA and we started flying and testing it here just in the past couple weeks.”

The UAV has had three flying days and still needs modifications for launch and recovery. The next step is to test the parachute recovery system before adding the camera and actually capturing imagery.

“We’re about to do our first test of the parachute,” said Briggs. “Next is taking pictures, but for now, I haven’t put the camera on until we’re comfortable with the parachute recovery system.”

“We’re excited about all of it,” said Lutterman.  “We knew that this kind of technology was coming. I like the idea that it’s a local entity doing it, that way there’s more people to answer to, so I’m happy with how it’s working out on that end.”

Until the regulations change, Briggs hopes to repeat this process with adjoining counties in Minnesota.

“They’re already interested, they know what we’re doing and they want to see the products that we’re going to be creating,” said Briggs. “As soon as we have demonstrable products, I plan on going to all of the adjoining counties and proposing a similar operation.”