When tech meets nature

A drone takes a picture of a lakeshore in Aitkin County. Drones are an important part of the technology used by the Aitkin County Soil and Water Conservation District.

In the summer of 2020, Aitkin County started using drones to monitor and collect data on conservation efforts, forestry management and lakeshore buffer compliance.

Kyle Fredrickson, a district technician in forestry for Aitkin County Soil and Water Conservation District, is one of two government workers in the county with a commercial drone license.

The SWCD uses the drone to get an aerial view for a variety of projects.

“We got the drone knowing it had a lot of capabilities,” Fredrickson said. A bird’s eye view provides a fuller, more comprehensive view of the situation on the ground, Fedrickson explained. Images and data collected by the drone helps the SWCD  better understand issues for potential erosion and areas where the SWCD may need to focus its efforts.

“It’s saving a lot of legwork in areas like the other side of the swamp or places harder to reach that are still visible,” Fredrickson said. “The drone lets us fly over and save quite a bit of man hours. It makes life easier.”

Fredrickson has been in touch with Rich Courtemanche, land commissioner for the Aitkin County Land Department, about future opportunities to survey ATV trails for damages and for better mapping.

All commercial drone pilots, like Fredrickson, are required by state and federal law to get a license and pass an FAA aeronautical knowledge test to receive a remote pilot certificate. Not only do drones have incredible data gathering capabilities, but there are recreational benefits such as photography, cinematography and racing. Recreational flyers must register their drone and it must weigh .55 pounds or less.

Leanne Langeberg, a public information officer for Minnesota Incident Command Systems, which works to monitor, fight and prevent wildfires, said they have seen a rise in drone activity over the past 10 years. Drones are small, distracting, and often fly at the same altitude as aircraft working the fire.

Last year, the National Interagency Fire Center, based out of Boise, Idaho, reported 20 drone incursions nationwide.

“If a drone is spotted in an area where aircraft are responding to a wildland fire, the response with our aircraft is that they either need to land or return back to base,” Langeberg said, “so that really impacts the amount of time that could be used to suppress a wildland fire on the ground and creates challenges both in the sky and on the ground where wildland firefighters are working the fire.”

Temporary flight restrictions go into effect up to a five mile radius around a wildland fire.

Drone incursions continue to happen and Langeberg fears this trend will continue to rise with the increase in technology and accessibility.

“People are curious about what’s happening and now have the technology to see what’s happening,” Langeberg said.

While that can be exciting, in the event of a wildland fire the impact can be devastating.

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