Drones can and are being used in dozens of ways on the farm. Trouble is, the FAA doesn’t strictly find those commercial uses legal, says John Dillard, an associate lawyer at OFW Law.
“The FAA’s position is that any kind of commercial operation is only authorized on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “There’s no gray area as far as they’re concerned.”
Congress has instructed the FAA to finalize a plan for "safe integration" of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) by Sept. 30, 2015. Dillard says that because of various delays, it will likely be 2017 before regulations are finalized.
Yet the FAA continues to authorize drone use in specific circumstances, including agriculture. In early 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 data, often faster than traditional surveying or mapping techniques.
“In the agriculture market, the FAA exemption moves Trimble one step further with the opportunity to provide a solution for safe and legal UAS operations that can benefit growers, ranchers, water management contractors, agronomists and other ag service providers,” says Joe Denniston, vice president of Trimble’s agriculture division. “High-speed aerial imaging is a powerful tool that can quickly and easily capture aerial images for scouting and monitoring crop health; locating cattle and their available forage over large areas; measuring crop height; and generating topographic maps and models for land leveling and drainage applications.”
In addition to exemptions, the FAA may 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 is the latest addition to a small but growing list of approved COAs at agricultural schools that will use the approval to conduct ag-related research.
“Technology has always played a key role in agriculture,” says Dusty Walter, superintendent of the school’s Wurdack Research Center, where researchers will fly a 3-lb., fixed-wing UAS equipped with cameras and special sensors. “This COA allows us to be on the leading edge of integration in management systems.”
By FAA standards, Walter says, the craft will not exceed an altitude of 400 ft., and every flight has to be logged by the FAA. He says MU will apply for additional COAs in other research centers located across the state.
“I hope that this can help spur new industries in Missouri to not only benefit the producers, but the rest of the state as well,” he says.
Exemptions such as that provided to Trimble are permitted because the FAA has indicated operations do not need an FAA-issued certificate of airworthiness. That’s based on a finding that they do not pose a threat to national airspace users or national security, as permitted under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
In September, the FAA issued its first six Section 333 exemptions based on requests facilitated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Then came the Trimble exemption in December.
In granting the exemptions, FAA administrator Michael Huerta says the FAA considered the operating environments and required certain conditions and limitations to assure the safe operation of these UAS in the National Airspace System.
“The FAA’s first priority is the safety of our nation’s aviation system,” he says. “Today’s exemptions are a step toward integrating UAS operations safely.”
The FAA is processing more than 160 additional Section 333 requests at this time.