Drones: The Slow March to Legality

Drones: The Slow March to Legality

Regulations on commercial use still up in the air

Drones can and are being used in dozens of ways on the farm. Trouble is, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t find those commercial uses legal, says John Dillard, Farm Journal legal columnist and attorney with Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz law firm.

“The FAA’s position is that any kind of commercial operation is only authorized on a case-by-case basis,” Dillard says. “There’s no gray area as far as they’re concerned.”

Congress has instructed FAA to finalize a plan for “safe integration” of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) by Sept. 30, 2015. Because of various delays, Dillard says it will likely be 2017 before regulations are finalized.

Yet the FAA continues to authorize drone use in specific circumstances, including agriculture. In December 2014, the FAA granted five exemptions, including the first for the agriculture industry. Trimble sought and received approval to fly its UX5 unmanned fixed-wing aircraft to collect massive amounts of crop data.

In addition to exemptions, FAA might issue a Certificate of Authorization (COA) for a “public operator for a specific UA activity”—usually land-grant universities or law enforcement agencies. The University of Missouri (MU) is the latest addition to a small but growing list of schools with approved COAs to conduct agricultural research.

By FAA standards, Dusty Walter, superintendent of MU’s Wurdack Research Center, says the 3-lb., fixed-wing UAS equipped with cameras and special sensors will not exceed an altitude of 400', and every flight has to be logged by FAA. He says MU will apply for additional COAs for other research centers in the state.

Exemptions are permitted under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and based on whether indicated operations need an FAA-issued certificate of airworthiness. FAA is currently processing more than 200 Section 333 requests. 

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