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Who needs a pilot to fly a plane?

An unmanned, remote controlled aircraft may soon be making its first flights over the city of Ottertail.

Provided, that is, the plane is cleared for take-off by the Federal Aviation Administration. The plane, which is used to create Geographic Information Systems (GIS), has already been mapping parcels throughout Otter Tail County.

Brian Armstrong, E-911 Addressing Coordinator from the Otter Tail County GIS office, was present at the June 19 Ottertail city council meeting to discuss the possibility of contracting with the city for digital mapping. His proposal was to create a GIS parcel map for the city of Ottertail, using an unmanned, electric-powered plane to take aerial photographs.

According to Armstrong, the city of Battle Lake has already had their city mapped by the plane. The Otter Tail County countryside has also been mapped, leaving the remaining cities in the county.

In the Minnesota GIS newsletter, Armstrong is quoted as saying that Otter Tail County is "only the third entity in the United States to utilize a remote controlled aircraft known as a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) for the purpose of collecting aerial photography."

Costs associated with the GIS mapping are $14 per parcel. An arrangement has been set up where the city of Ottertail will pay $7 per parcel, with Otter Tail County covering the other half of the cost. With 895 parcels, the city of Ottertail will pay $6,265 for the mapping--half of the $12,530 total cost.

After hearing Armstrong's presentation, the Ottertail City Council decided to collaborate with Otter Tail County to develop a GIS map for the city. The $6,265 is set to come out of the city's 2009 budget.

Why is the plane banned from flying?

"Well, we started the process in 2006 and we had permission from the FAA then," explained Armstrong in a phone interview. "Since that point in time, the FAA has developed some procedures and we have to fill out the appropriate paperwork."

The necessary paperwork for the Otter Tail County GIS project has now been sent in, and is awaiting approval. According to Armstrong, Otter Tail is the county agency that the FAA has required to apply for a COA (Certificate of Airworthiness).

If the county is granted a COA--which is something Armstrong anticipates happening by the end of July--then members of the Otter Tail County GIS Department will begin discussion with the FAA about how they plan on mapping some of the county's more populated areas.

"Right now, they [the FAA] are not too hip on flying over very populated areas," explains Armstrong.

"I'm sure that we'll get the plane up; whether or not we'll be able to fly over the city of Perham, I don't know," he continues. "This is a six-pound plane. We have geese bigger than that that fall out of the sky."

Armstrong speculated that the FAA's concern about the unmanned aerial vehicle flying over densely populated areas centers on the plane not having a pilot. "They're running the assumption that if the plane was piloted, the pilot would be able to crash-land the plane away from a densely populated area," he said.

Although the plane used for the GIS mapping is unmanned, it is closely watched from the ground at all times. One solution Armstrong said might help with concerns about populated areas such as Perham would be adding more people who observe the plane throughout its course. Other options include flying the plane at a lower or higher altitude.

Current regulations state that the plane must be kept within the line of sight of an on-ground observer at all times. The plane used by the Otter Tail County GIS Department has the potential to stay up in the air for a 40-minute timeframe.

County's history of GIS mapping

GIS parcel mapping for Otter Tail County municipalities started last year. To date, the only missing pieces in the county maps are the cities.

Although the city of Battle Lake was successfully mapped, the FAA's grounding of the plane has prevented the county from moving forward with other cities. Armstrong said that they were informed of the FAA's new guidelines after they finished mapping Battle Lake.

Armstrong encourages people to go to the county's website at to check out the aerial photographs of Battle Lake. "You can zoom in there pretty darn tight," he says. "But you're not going to see people. You may see a head or a shoulder--that's it."

One of the major benefits GIS mapping provides for the county is the accuracy of the maps created. The maps are never more than two weeks out-of-date. The process is also very time efficient. Armstrong reported that a half-section of land can be photographed in about 20 minutes.

For cities such as Ottertail, having a digital GIS mapping system will make it possible for the city to pull up information about a given parcel with the click of a mouse. One example Armstrong gave the Ottertail City Council was using the map to store and easily access utility billing information. The map also provides cities with valuable information about their infrastructure.

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a UAV...

The unmanned aerial vehicle used by Otter Tail County has an 8-foot wingspan and measures 5 feet, from foot to tail. It's an electric-powered glider with slender wings.

Although the plane itself cost a remarkably affordable $400, the electronics enabling the plane to perform its GIS function cost around $6,000.

Unless they are looking for the plane, Armstrong says it's unlikely onlookers will notice the white plane flying 1,200 feet above their heads. "It's quiet. It's electric. You can't hear it," he says.