More Drones In Your Future?


   The regulatory logjam over the use of drones, officially known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), may finally be breaking, but it can’t come fast enough for some producers and agribusinesses who are interesting in using the technology to enhance crop and livestock production.
   Farmers in countries such as Japan and Australia have been using drones in agriculture since the 1980s, while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S. has struggled to develop a comprehensive rule governing use in the U.S.
   However, on Feb. 15, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its long-awaited proposal for rules governing the commercial use of drones. Stakeholders say it’s a big step forward, albeit not as helpful for agriculture as some would prefer.
   The proposed rules apply to small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) under 55 pounds and would limit their use to daylight and to visual line-of-sight operations, a requirement that agricultural stakeholders have lobbied against, citing the need for drones to operate over large wheat and corn fields, as well as ranches. 
   The proposal also would require the person flying a small UAS to be 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test every two years and obtain a UAS operator certificate from the FAA. An operator would not need any further private pilot certification.
   “We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a news release. “We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.” 
   The proposal says flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 miles per hour. In addition, operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace, and not fly over people, except those directly involved in the flight.
   The FAA is asking for comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be. The FAA is also asking for comment on whether the final rule should include an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” UAS under 4.4 pounds. The proposed regulations announced today would not apply to model aircraft.
   The public will be able to comment on the proposed regulation for 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register. 
   Separate from this proposal, the FAA intends to hold public meetings to discuss innovation and opportunities at the six test sites it has set up to explore UAS potential. These meetings will be announced in a future Federal Register notice.
   Until the FAA implements a final rule, the current unmanned aircraft rules remain in effect. They require an FAA exemption for individuals or businesses who want to use small unmanned aircraft in commercial operations, including agriculture.
   In early January, the FAA granted its first exemption allowing commercial use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in agriculture to Advanced Aviation Solutions of Boise, Idaho. 
   According to the company’s petition, its 1.5 pound, fixed-wing eBee Ag UAV, or drone, will be used to make photographic measurements and perform crop scouting for precision agriculture. 
   Constructed primarily out of foam, the eBee Ag has wingspan of about 3 feet and a maximum speed of about 50 knots. An onboard geo-referenced still camera can provides high-resolution data to direct variable seeding rates as well as the precise application of fertilizer and chemicals. Advanced Aviation Solutions says this data helps farmers maximize yields while reducing costs and impacts to the environment.
   Advanced Aviation Solutions is one of three entities that planned to partner to form Empire Unmanned, said one of the prospective partners, Robert Blair, owner of Three Canyon Farms in Kendrick, Idaho. The third partner is Empire Airlines. The Idaho-based partnership will focus on flying the eBee Ag for commercial use, Blair said. 
   “We’re going to be flying for ag purposes for hire,” said Blair, who claims to be the first farmer in the U.S. to fly UAVs, back in 2006. “It's exciting times for agriculture.”
   To obtain the exemption, which took about six months from when the petition was filed, Advanced Aviation Solutions had to agree to a number of restrictions - on speed, distance and altitude (400 feet), as well as a requirement that the drone keep within line of sight at all times. Additionally, the drone pilot must have an FAA private pilot certificate.
   “While we can fly commercially, the constraints are not conducive to ag operations,” Blair said, noting that the restrictions will not allow the eBee Ag to cover much land. 
   “If I have 20,000 acres to scout and can only fly 2,000 acres in a day, that's going to take 10 days,” he said, barring any inclement weather. 
The exemption also requires flights to be conducted only over private property and with the permission of the landowner, who must be briefed on the expected route of the flight, Blair said. Flights are also banned over congested areas and must be flown at an altitude that would preclude damage to people or property in case of an emergency landing.
   The company must also obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) that ensures the airspace for their proposed operations is safe, and that operators have taken proper steps to see and avoid other aircraft, according to the FAA. The COA also requires the company to file paperwork with FAA for every area in which it is hired to fly. 
   Still, Blair described the approval as a “great first step… it allows us to move forward and be a case example for the FAA,” Blair added. But, “we need to change the restrictions we're operating under.”
   Farm organizations and equipment manufacturers will undoubtedly be weighing in with comments to the FAA over the next 60 days, pushing the agency to remove even more restrictions for agricultural use. 
   The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International published a report on the economic impact of incorporating drones in U.S. airspace. The report estimated that between 2015 and 2025, drones could grow to account for an $82.1 billion economic impact and create more than 103,000 jobs. 
   The report said every year drone integration is delayed, the U.S. loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact, which translates to about $27.6 million lost every day. ∆
   Editor’s note: Daniel Enoch and Sarah Gonzalez contributed to this story.
   SARA WYANT: Editor of Agri-Pulse, a weekly e-newsletter coverng farm and rural policy. To contact her, go to:
MidAmerica Farm Publications, Inc
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