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FAA red tape grounds Otter Tail County drone used for mapping

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. - The foam-and-balsa-wood gizmo sitting idle in the offices of Otter Tail County isn't exactly the spitting image of the sleek unmanned warplanes the word "drone" brings to mind.

Its mission is to photograph drainage ditches, not enemy targets. At 6 pounds, it would be hard-pressed to take down a cow, let alone blow up a building.

But thanks to Federal Aviation Administration rules that make little distinction between tiny model helicopters and the high-tech weapons platforms favored by the U.S. military, you won't see it in the sky any time soon.

The county acquired the drone in 2006. It was supposed to streamline surveying and planning operations, said Brian Armstrong, the spatial and address coordinator for the county's Geographic Information Systems department.

Armstrong and his colleagues saw it as a cheaper, easier alternative to manned aerial photography or trudging to tough locations on foot to collect data. If a drainage system was blocked, for instance, the county could send the drone to snap a photo rather than "putting two guys in a canoe and spend two or three days fighting our way up there," he said.

So they bought the plane - a $250 model much like something found at a hobby store - outfitted it with a camera and a GPS system, and hooked it up to a computer system that could program flight plans.

It was a novel idea, particularly for an entity like Otter Tail County. Just 62 organizations nationwide hold or have sought licenses to fly drones, according to data obtained recently via a Freedom of Information Act request from the Wall Street Journal.

About half of those are colleges and universities - including the University of North Dakota, which holds a license for its aerospace program. The rest are a mix of law enforcement agencies, branches of the military and other government agencies ranging from Homeland Security to the Forest Service.

For about a year, the plane worked like a charm: The flights were a success, and the data was top-notch. But while getting initial approval to fly the plane was easy, receiving the FAA's permission to keep it in the air was another matter.

The agency wanted a defined area of operation more specific than the 2,200-square-mile territory of Otter Tail County. It wanted at least two operators and two observers to keep the drone in sight at all times. It wanted the operator to have a pilot's license and the observers to be airmen or pass a physical.

Eventually, "it wasn't feasible to be in compliance," Armstrong said.

So the county grounded the aircraft in 2007. Armstrong hopes new FAA rules next year will let him put it back in action.

He said some people who hear the county has a drone initially wonder if it's for spying or other clandestine purposes before learning the more mundane truth.

"We're talking about farmland, sloughs," he said of the plane's routes. "We're not flying down Main Street."