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Unmanned aircraft aiding geologists could face legal challenges

By Luke Jones
Published On: Apr 24 2014 07:14:10 PM CDT

As geologists and engineers work to try and understand the landslide and how it can be stopped, a camera-mounted unmanned aircraft is helping keep them informed of what's happening on the ground. Luke Jones reports.

JACKSON, Wyo. -

As geologists and engineers work to try to understand a slow-moving landslide and how they can stop it, a camera-mounted unmanned aircraft is helping keep them informed of what's happening on the ground.

But while many say the imagery is invaluable, it may also be in violation of Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

A two-man team with a company called Tributary Environmental is operating the aircraft via remote control and then selling the footage they collect to the town of Jackson.

They can fly the aircraft up to 1,000 meters high.

But, pilot Case Brown noted, “(We) try to make sure that we have a visual of the equipment at all times."

Brown and his partner, Jason Rolfe, began collecting the footage on their own, but they said that last week they were approached by the town of Jackson and now have an exclusive agreement with them.

"We're looking at the imagery. I haven't studied it in detail, but it's gonna be a real good resource information,” said George McChan, a geotechnical engineer with Landslide Technology, the firm that's consulting with the town during the landslide.

"We're able to put the camera in a position that not many people can get to safely. They would literally have to have somebody roped up and rappelling down the face of the hillside to be able to see what we can see with the camera,” said Brown.

But because the town of Jackson is paying Rolfe and Brown for their footage, the FAA considers this commercial use. Under current FAA guidelines, it's illegal to use unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes.

The duo say they have no immediate plans to stop using the aircraft, and hope the FAA will be able to see the benefits that can come from using such devices.

"They'll see that we're doing this for the benefit of the town and for those affected by the landslide and not strictly doing it for profit,” said Rolfe.

The FAA has until 2015 to hammer out new guidelines that will allow for the safe use of unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes.

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