UAVs, Today & Tomorrow

by Dan McDowell with Tony Fernando
Published in Midwest Flyer – December 2019/January 2020 issue

We live in an age where technological advances happen very quickly. Looking at the obvious, think about computers in our homes. Now think about cell phones. Now think about how cell phones have morphed into mega pixel camera platforms, and honest to goodness computers. These “hand-held computers” contain more computational power than one could have imagined even 10 years ago. They continue to evolve and increase in capability and usability.

Another area of technology that has exploded around the world, and also here in our state of Minnesota, is “autonomous aircraft.” They are also known as Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs), Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or quite simply “drones.” The range from craft as small as a few ounces to nearly 55 pounds. It matters little what they are called as long as we understand their key features are that they are capable of controlled flight without a human pilot directly onboard the aircraft.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), Office of Aeronautics, is the state-level regulator for drones (UAS, UAV RPV) throughout Minnesota. We are fortunate to have two expert UAS Program Administrators in Aeronautics, and yes, they are here to help you. They are Anthony “Tony” Fernando, and Katrina “Katie” Gilmore. You can contact Tony at 651-234-7227,, and Katie at 651-234-7189,

I asked Tony Fernando about MnDOT’s drones. He replied: “MnDOT operates several drones. As of August 30, 2019, MnDOT had conducted 52 drone operations in 2019 (most operations involve several flights). They are being used, for instance, to complete bridge inspections. Using a drone for some tasks, instead of traditional means can save up to 40% in operating costs. Cost savings alone are going to drive increased use of drones by many businesses, resulting in even more drone traffic. That is why we added a second UAS Program Administrator (Katie Gilmore), to our staff to help facilitate the coming growth in MnDOT drone operations.”

I then asked if the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the State of Minnesota had specific rules or guidelines about drone operations. Fernando responded: “Absolutely. In fact, the FAA’s rules change frequently, as changes and improvements in technologies come about. For example, the requirement for recreational operators to notify airport operators when flying within 5 miles of an airport or heliport went away. It is important to check the FAA’s website to stay up-to-date on drone regulations ( Manned aircraft pilots need to know how drones will be operated in case they encounter one; drone pilots need to know how to safely and legally operate their drones.

Fernando continued: “Minnesota statutes requires commercial drone operators to register and obtain a commercial operations license, just like manned aircraft operators. It is important to note that we (MnDOT Aeronautics) have become aware of websites with false information about Minnesota registration, licensing, and insurance requirements.”

You can find current and correct information on our website: MnDOT Aeronautics has also produced a video outreach series with Minnesota TPT:

With the above information, the question arose about citizens who purchase and operate drones. Are they following the state and federal rules and guidelines?

Tony Fernando responded: “Our biggest problem is operator non-compliance with state registration and licensing.”

He continued: “The next biggest issue seems to be a number of operators failing to understand and comply with FAA Regulations. So, we strongly urge and recommend that anyone who buys and plans to operate a drone, should first view our video series. Then go to the links provided in this article and thoroughly review the materials presented there. We want all users of the airspace to be aware of the proper way to utilize their aircraft and to be fully cognizant of the safe and proper methods of operating their craft at all times.”

Check out our website for additional information at: You will find a number of frequently asked questions and answers, and links to additional information and resources, as well as videos that demonstrate many uses and capabilities of drones.

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