MnDOT steps up oversight of drone use

By Mike Kaszuba

Over the past four years, state transportation officials have issued cease and desist orders and other warnings regarding unauthorized drone flights to a series of commercial users, ranging from Xcel Energy to Edina Realty.

The written warnings, obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a St. Paul non profit, show how the state Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has tried to monitor the emerging use of commercial drones in Minnesota.  The agency told PRM that it typically sends written warnings after receiving information from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), or from “evidence gathered that indicates a violation of state law.”

MnDOT warning letters to drone users

In a November, 2015 warning letter to the Roseville-based Building Restoration Corporation, MnDOT wrote that “in a recent audit of our files, we have found that your commercial aircraft operations involving the use of an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) is currently not license[d] or registered with the State of Minnesota.”

The warning letter, which was typical of documents reviewed by PRM, noted that while the company had received an exemption from the FAA, “all aircraft using the airspace overlying the State of Minnesota are presumed to be subject to Minnesota aircraft registration taxes.”  The letter gave the company seven days to contact MnDOT.

Since 2013, state transportation officials have issued more than 50 warning and cease and desist letters, with many of them being sent to aerial photography firms.  In another instance, MnDOT sent a warning to a Winnebago, Minnesota company that advertises “drones for farming” and offers UAS technology for hire.

The FAA told PRM that it could not find any evidence that the federal agency had issued drone warning letters or enforcement actions in Minnesota during that same period.

Snapshot of drone use

The MnDOT letters offer a glimpse into the types of businesses that use drones and, in some instances, how and where they are using them.   A warning letter sent in November of 2015 to Wells Fargo included a hand-written notation stating that the drone was “not being flown and not in MN.”

In July of 2015, MnDOT sent a warning letter to Drone Star, a Duluth drone company whose marketing materials state that the company offers “launch anywhere ability” and “never before seen angles” that can “provide you with an edge over your competition.”

In the letter, the state agency told Drone Star that it was “aware of your commercial aircraft operations involving the use of an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).   According to your company’s website, UAS are offered for hire.  [Our] records indicate that your aircraft is not currently registered and the company’s commercial operations are not licensed” under state law.

In October, 2016, MnDOT also sent a warning letter to the Star Tribune, the state’s largest newspaper, telling the company that “you recently published a promotional video for a news report in which you included video shot from an unmanned aircraft” which was not registered with the state.  “MnDOT will seek a cease and desist order if you continue with this unlawful conduct.”

One warning letter was sent in July, 2015 to three Minnesota locations for Extreme Sandbox, which advertises itself as a “heavy equipment adventure company.”  The company’s website states that “we let people drive a 26 ton excavator or bulldozer for fun” and adds that “there is no other place in the world where you can drive a bulldozer, crush a car, and then finish off with a ride in our fire truck.”

MnDOT told the company that, according to state law, “all aircraft are presumed to be using the airspace overlying the state of Minnesota.  The aircraft owner has the burden to prove that the aircraft has not used the airspace or airports of Minnesota.”

According to documents obtained by PRM, one individual wrote an e-mail to MnDOT complaining about unauthorized drone use, and forwarded YouTube footage as evidence.  “No imminent danger,” the e-mail stated, “but these individuals have been flying commercially and with no licenses and one [sic] recklessly over people.”

Cease and desist letters sent in some cases

In several instances, MnDOT stepped up its warnings with a cease and desist letter.  The agency noted that it sends such letters “where there is sufficient evidence to substantiate a violation of state aviation law.”

One of the letters was sent last September to Short Elliott Hendrickson (SEH) Inc., an engineering and architectural firm whose government contracts led to work on, among other things, the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River and the bus rapid transit station at Interstate 35W and 46th St. in Minneapolis.

MnDOT told the company that it “must cease operations immediately until your company comes into compliance.  You will be referred for prosecution if you do not comply.”  SEH was told in the letter it must register both with the FAA and MnDOT, and also obtain a commercial operations license from the state.

In October of 2015, MnDOT sent a similar cease and desist order to Twin Cities Golf, which bills itself as Minnesota’s top golf-related website.  The state agency told Twin Cities Golf that “each violation constitutes a separate misdemeanor”, and noted that the company had to obtain an N-number for its drone from the FAA.

Warning letter sent to Xcel Energy

Records also indicate that a 2015 warning letter was sent to Xcel Energy after the utility company had disputed MnDOT’s stance that it needed a drone license.

In a November, 2015 e-mail, MnDOT’s associate legal counsel Tara Kalar wrote that the state agency “had received reports of Xcel Energy operating UAS in Minnesota around Red Wing, Dexter, and the surrounding Austin area.  I am wondering if you have made progress in identifying whether Xcel actually flew in Minnesota.  The law currently requires aircraft registration and commercial operations licensing” from the state.

Mary Lynn Jahnke, Xcel’s assistant general counsel, replied the same day.  “Xcel Energy has conducted some flights within the state of Minnesota under its exemption authority” from the FAA, she said.  “Xcel Energy only conducts [UAS] operations on its own behalf and is consequently not a commercial operator in the traditional sense.”

“Our understanding is that the FAA has consistently maintained that it fully preempts the field of aviation safety, even when state requirements are consistent with federal requirements,” she added.  “As such, we believe we are in full compliance with all applicable laws.”

But MnDOT disagreed, and in December of 2015 sent Xcel a warning letter stating that the utility’s drone needed to be registered under state law.  “MnDOT makes it easy to become registered,” the letter stated.