On Feb. 23, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a proposed rule that would govern the commercial use of drones, including those used on farm operations. The proposed rule is long overdue because many drones are already in commercial operation. Once finalized, FAA’s rule will provide clarity and certainty to farms and agribusinesses that wish to deploy drones.
The proposal only applies to drones that weigh less than 55 lb., which the agency refers to as small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS). In its first step to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, the FAA’s proposed rule addresses what drones can be flown, who can fly them and how they must be operated. It does not address privacy concerns of private landowners, who are outside the scope of the agency’s authority.
The portions of the proposal that pertain to farmers include:
- Aircraft. Under the proposal, drones will need to be registered with the agency and display the aircraft’s registration number. FAA will not require an airworthiness certificate for the aircraft.
- Visual line-of-sight. The proposal would limit flights to within the visual line-of-sight of the operator. The operator could not use on-board cameras, binoculars or vehicles to satisfy this requirement. An operator could use what FAA terms as a “visual observer” to assist in maintaining the visual line-of-sight; however, at all points, the operator must be capable of seeing the aircraft to avoid collisions. This requirement will limit how many acres a drone can cover because the operator will be required to constantly move the operating station to maintain the visual line-of-sight.
- Operational containment. FAA would allow drones to be operated at a maximum altitude of 500' in unrestricted airspace. An operator would need approval from an air traffic control tower before conducting operations within 5 miles of an airport or other controlled airspace. Under the proposal, drones would not be allowed to be operated over persons on the ground that are not associated with the flight.
- Operator certification. The proposal would require operators to pass a comprehensive aeronautical knowledge test, specific to operation of sUAS. The certification process would not require an applicant to complete a particular training program or demonstrate flight proficiency. Once certified, operators would be required to take less rigorous recertification tests every two years to renew their license. Visual observers will not be required to have certification.
- Micro UAS. FAA is also considering establishing rules for a sub-class of drones called micro UAS. Micro UAS present less of a hazard to manned aircraft and people on the ground because they weigh less than 4.4 lb. and are made of easily breakable material, such as foam or plastic. A micro UAS operator could be certified without taking the aeronautical knowledge test. Micro UAS operations would be limited to 400' high and could not be flown within 5 miles of an airport, but they could be operated over people on the ground.
FAA’s rules for drones will take further shape as the agency processes public feedback. However, agency sources indicate the rule will not likely be finalized until 2017. In the meantime, some operators are legally operating drones through FAA’s Section 333 exemptions. Under these exemptions, applicants can seek approval from FAA to operate drones for agricultural applications under certain conditions.
While many in the industry welcome the clarity of having the proposed rule spelled out on paper, many operators will be frustrated by the agency’s conservative approach, particularly the visual line-of-sight requirement. Hopefully, FAA will eventually foster a regulatory environment where the public is protected and innovative technology has a clear path to the marketplace.
This column is not a substitute for legal advice.