Government agency clears easier path for commercial use
Many tech-savvy farmers and ranchers who have been flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on their operations for the past few years do so with a twinge of guilt. After all, they’re breaking the law.
To be fair, they aren’t guilty of any major violations, and they’re unlikely to be prosecuted. Even so, without a proper regulatory framework in place, commercial drone flights, including most uses on the farm, have been forbidden—until now.
In June, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. It clarifies requirements and responsibilities for flying unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 lb.
“We are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety,” says Michael Huerta, FAA Administrator. “But this is just our first step.”
Stakeholders Weigh In. It’s critical that people employed in agriculture get more involved in the regulatory process as drone technology makes inroads in farming, says Robert Blair, a fourth-generation Idaho farmer and vice president of agriculture with Measure, a drone services company. That’s because legal changes are ongoing and because preliminary work already is being done on the next farm bill.
“How we operate in rural America differentiates us from most other uses,” Blair says. “The risk is ultra-low if you have good communication with aerial applicators. It’s not hard to call them up. ... We don’t have a lot of people and buildings and structures where we fly.”
Drones already are a big boon to the agriculture industry, and FAA rules will make it easier for U.S. farmers and ranchers to engage in new aerial precision ag processes at astonishing rates, says Robert Parkhurst, a strategist with the Environmental Defense Fund.
“Industry groups estimate that precision agriculture has the potential to account for almost 80% of civilian drone use by 2020,” Parkhurst says. “Already, 16% of agricultural retailers are selling drones, a figure set to skyrocket in the coming years.”
Take Your Time. Some might be tempted to jump in headfirst now that clearer rules are in place. But Greg Emerick, executive vice president of Sentera, a full-service drone provider, says drone adoption is no different than incorporating any other technology.
“Start simple,” Emerick suggests. “If you really buy into the technology, you should take the time and learn how to leverage it to the best of your ability. Don’t get stuck in a data silo. It needs to be compatible with all analytics tools.”
Although the accelerating drone industry will almost certainly run into some growing pains, Part 107 keeps that future bright. As young producers come on board, Blair says, drones are just the beginning.
“Agriculture needs to head in this direction,” he says. “Technology isn’t going away. If anything, it’s advancing more rapidly.”
Understand What Part 107 Says
The FAA’s recently released final rule for small drones will become effective in late August. Here are a few highlights that could affect how farmers use them:
- Commercial flight of drones under 55 lb. is permitted, provided the vehicles fly slower than 100 mph and lower than 400 ft. above ground level.
- Pilots must obtain a remote pilot airman certificate or be supervised by someone who has one.
- No flights are allowed at night, under covered structures or over people.
- A visual line of sight with the UAV is required.
- A preflight inspection is required before every flight to ensure a UAV is airworthy.