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'Drone parks' may be the future

Becker County drone operator reminisces on how the industry has changed since 2015

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Gene Lof of rural Detroit Lakes is also known as Dr. Drone. The former chiropractor now owns a business that utilizes drones to photograph events.
Barbie Porter / Detroit Lakes Tribune
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DETROIT LAKES — As Amazon prepares to test drone delivery in Lockeford, Cali., and College Station, Texas, this year, there are rumblings of what that may mean for the drone hobbyist.

Gene Lof, who owns Dr. Drone Aerial Images, expects to see a regulation restricting non-licensed drone pilots to designated fly zones. If that were to happen, that could mean recreational drone pilots may need to visit a drone park to fly their craft.

“I expect it to happen in 2023,” the rural Detroit Lakes resident said. “Amazon wants the airspace.”

While it has yet to be seen if drone delivery will extend to rural Minnesota anytime soon, the concept of drone delivery by Amazon was born in 2013. According to a promotional video by Amazon, thousands of hours have been spent building drones, testing their flight capabilities, developing avoidance systems to prevent contact with people or pets and determining if a programmed flight path is safe, or if it should return to its base.

Using drones for delivery has proved effective. In an article written by Miriam McNabb and published by Drone Life , the aircraft was used in Sweden to deliver a defibrillator to a person in cardiac arrest. The quick delivery and actions of those with the deathly-ill person saved a 71-year-old man’s life.

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The newer drones are light, have a longer battery life and include a quality camera for recording still shots and videos.
Barbie Porter / Detroit Lakes Tribune

While some regulations may be speculation, a certain change for drone operators goes into effect on Sept. 16, 2023. All drones, regardless of the age of the craft, will be required to have a remote ID installed in them. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) website , the ID will provide information on who owns the drone, its take-off location, latitude, longitude, geometric altitude, velocity and more.

Drones are a relatively new technology, but much like all computer technology, the advancement has been swift. Lof began his journey with unmanned aircraft in 2015. His first drone had a rigid skeleton, used satellites to communicate its flight path and had a power system that ate batteries as if it were a famished person at a riblet buffet. The craft was larger than its successor, weighing in at around 3½ pounds. He lifted up his first drone and noted it has a flight time of about 20 minutes, depending on the weather.

“The old bird didn’t want to fly after the temperature dropped to freezing,” he said.

Shortly after purchasing his first drone, in 2016, the FAA required a license for all drone pilots that use their video footage or photographs for commercial use.

“I was one of the first 500 to have that (license) in the country,” he said.

While Lof felt the U.S. was behind the curve with drone technology back in 2015, he said the FAA was ready for the technology and had already created geo-fences (or invisible shields) around sensitive areas, such as landmarks, jails, airports and so forth. He recalled one assignment took him near restricted airspace.

“When the drone hits a geo-fence it just stops," he said. "The only option is to back out of that zone.”

Lof’s business, Dr. Drone Aerial Images, took off quickly. The profits made from assignments cover travel expenses, as well as equipment upgrades. When he bought his second drone in 2018, the machine weighed in at about 1½ pounds, had a longer battery life, more storage, better pre-flight programming options and increased camera zoom capabilities.

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Gene Lof began using drones in 2013. The early models were heavier and had less battery time.
Barbie Porter / Detroit Lakes Tribune

By 2020, Lof purchased a third drone with even more battery life (almost 30 minutes of flight time) and a camera that shot in 4K high definition. The latency (or reaction time) when moving the drone in flight had also improved, as did the ability to fly in inclement weather.

“Now they have better tolerances at both (temperature) extremes,” he said. “One flight I had the drone up in 15 mph wind when it was 15 below.”

The 67-year-old has seen an ever-expanding market for commercial drone pilots. Whether shooting footage of a farm, construction sight, breaking news event or celebration, the images are transferred to a computer where he uses photo and video editing programs to enhance the final product.

“I love it,” he said. “I’m a bit of a geek and I like a challenge.”

Lof's work can be seen on Facebook and he can be contacted at genolof@arvig.net or by calling (218) 849-4978.

Related Topics: BECKER COUNTYDETROIT LAKES
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