INVESTIGATORS: Drones changing life in Minnesota - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: Drones changing life in Minnesota

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WINNEBAGO, Minn. (KMSP) -

What looks like it came off the shelf of a hobby store is actually closer in line to something James Bond would pull out of his high-tech bag of tricks.

The same research that went into developing drones for the military is behind an unmanned aircraft flying a mission in southern Minnesota. Soon, these machines may be as common a sight on a Midwest farm as a tractor.

Todd Golly started drone testing on his farm last year.

"It makes a huge difference for us, both economically and environmentally,” Golly said. “It's like another employee it just goes out and works while I do my thing."

It's programmed to fly over his fields and take high resolution images of the crops and soil, looking for spots where plants are under attack from bugs and weeds

The sensors can see the problem before the human eye. Welcome to the brave new world of "precision agriculture."

A company called Fourthwing, headquartered in the Minneapolis warehouse district, hopes to cash in big on this technology.

Sensors on the drone, developed by Fourthwing, can help farmers pinpoint down to the row where their crops need water, fertilizer, or pesticides. There's no more blanket spraying of his fields. Instead, he can zero-in on just the area that needs attention.

Fewer chemicals are used, meaning less runoff pollution and a ton of savings. For just one operation, it can be tens of thousands of dollars if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When it comes to uses for unmanned aircraft, the sky's the limit: search and rescue operations, bridge inspections, monitoring traffic jams.

The technology is at the point now where almost anyone can afford one. For as little as $1,000, you can buy a radio controlled quadcopter with an HD camera mounted on board.

But the coolness factor is clouded with legitimate concerns about privacy and public safety.

As this YouTube video shows, drones crash. And do we really want the sky filled with machines that are capable of snooping on us?

We got a taste of that insecurity recently here at FOX 9. An email came to the newsroom with no message, just a video link. At first it seemed a little creepy. Who was behind this? What were their intentions?

Turns out it was nothing nefarious. Pete Bain is in the satellite and antenna installation business. He was driving by our studio one day and couldn’t resist taking a video of our equipment. He uses a drone in his line of work to scope out his roof top projects.

“Saves me from getting the ladder out and heading straight up there,” Bain said.

Bain believes he can legally operate his quadcopter as long as it stays below 400 feet altitude and away from airports and air traffic.

"As long as you’re not along people's property, you can pretty much fly anywhere,” Bain said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the nation's air space, doesn't see it that way.

It declined to be interviewed on the drone debate. Instead we were directed to its website, which says any unmanned aircraft used for "commercial" purposes needs FAA approval to operate.

The University of Minnesota has been cleared for takeoff by the feds, where U researchers are using unmanned aircraft to develop new safety systems for commercial jets.

Where will all of this technology eventually take us?

"It's only a matter of time before the whole sky will be congested with these,” Bain said.

How much additional traffic can the airspace handle safely? What will the public tolerate?

The first big test of this new frontier is already underway in rural Minnesota.

"We have no interest flying over people’s houses, we don't make money doing that,” Todd Golly said. “We want to concentrate on our crops, make our crops better."

Ultimately, regulators and lawmakers will have to decide how we can use this rapidly developing technology.

Stay tuned. It could be a bumpy ride.

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