Drone photography shows promise in Minnesota

Farm Forum

LE CENTER, Minn. — After 13 test flights, a few bumpy landings and many hundreds of high-definition photos taken, Tim Briggs’ unmanned aerial vehicle is ready for action.

Briggs himself, though, is another story. The New Prague, Minn., resident traveled on Dec. 5 to Afghanistan to work with the Army on aerial surveillance for about three months.

When he gets back, in March, Briggs plans to put the drone to work for Le Sueur County, Minn. He has what appears to be the state’s first agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration to fly a drone for a county.

The drone’s mission is to take high-definition photos of Le Sueur County farm drainage ditches, but it could also be used for highway surveying and other work.

Briggs and Justin Lutterman, a computer-mapping specialist at the county, briefed the County Board last week on their progress.

From Sept. 5 to Nov. 25, the drone was put through its paces, mostly at the grounds of the Pioneer Power Association outside of Le Sueur.

Some rough landings persuaded Briggs to add a larger parachute so the electric-powered craft could come down slowly and more level. Once the drone could land undamaged, he added a camera.

The first full data set was collected Nov. 3, when the drone flew for 12 minutes and took 300 images, carefully mapping the 160-acre area.

There were more quirks to correct to ensure the drone was making an accurate survey.

It was flying too quickly at first, and he had to work with the autopilot until it consistently flew at about 40 mph. Eventually, he programmed the autopilot to fly up, down and across the field about 550 feet in the air. The FAA prohibits drones from flying lower than 500 feet.

The photos have a higher resolution than those taken from from low-flying airplanes. On the Pioneer Power Association site, for example, the airplane photos show blurry equipment. The drone photos, though, are detailed enough to see a bucket sitting in the back of some equipment.

Lutterman, the mapping specialist, said the county still plans to take aerial photos by plane, as well.

The elevation maps are truly the valuable part of the endeavor, County Administrator Darrell Pettis said.

“The pictures are nice, the pictures are cool, but when you can turn it into terrain models” it becomes even more useful, he said.

That could be helpful in, say, surveying a county road that is going to be rebuilt. Highway 112 between Le Center and Le Sueur, for example, appears likely to be reconstructed in several years.

“What used to take months or days to survey takes minutes,” Pettis said. “Granted, there’s some post-processing time.”

Briggs said it took about two days to get finished photos after one recent test flight.

By the time he returns from Afghanistan, Briggs expects the FAA to have released new rules on how drones can be operated. He’s hoping his UAV can be used outside of Le Sueur County, which would greatly expand his business opportunities.

The publicity he’s received from his contract with Le Sueur County already has uncovered potential customers, including the Department of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, Briggs is already looking forward to coming home. His wife prefers it that way, and he’d rather be flying his drone over farm ditches than war zones.