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Ag Drones Under Scrutiny
Thursday, August 28, 2014 2:58PM CDT

By Emily Unglesbee
DTN Staff Reporter

OMAHA (DTN) -- Someday soon farmers may be able to scout and manage crops with the precision that comes from the bird's eye view of a camera flying 400 feet above your field.

But not just yet.

Along with the rest of the public, farmers must slow down and wait for the Federal Aviation Administration's final regulations on the commercial use of drones -- unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)-- before they dive into profit-making schemes involving drones.

"There is no question that the technology is 100 miles ahead of the FAA right now," said Chad Colby, a product support lead for 360 Yield Center and licensed pilot with extensive UAV experience. "But everybody is really impatient and that's a big problem."

Until recently, most farmers using UAVs have been safely and legally operating as hobbyists, who are not subject to FAA regulations on unmanned aircrafts. Then on June 25, the FAA proposed a new interpretation of "hobbyists" that explicitly excludes farming activities.

Under a list of sample activities that would not qualify as hobbyist or recreational use of a UAV, the document lists, "Determining whether crops need to be watered that are grown as part of commercial farming operation."

Vendors are lining up at summer farm shows selling UAVs that can range in price from hundreds of dollars to $25,000. Higher-end models can transmit images back to a computer to help scout crop damage or even use infrared to detect disease or quality issues.

Because the commercial use of UAVs is currently banned by the FAA, that single line throws an already bustling area of agricultural activity and experimentation into a strange gray region, said Kent Shannon, a natural resources engineering specialist with the University of Missouri.

"There are folks out there marketing these tools specifically for farmers; you just have to understand the interpretation that FAA has put out there," Shannon said. "Is that a set-in-stone regulation? No. But it's a guideline."

Specifically, the document is a proposed new interpretation that is currently up for public comment through Sept. 23. Anyone can read the proposed interpretation here: http://goo.gl/…, and voice their opinions on it here: http://goo.gl/….

Both Shannon and Colby noted that farmers must be careful to keep their UAV activity within the other hobbyist guidelines for now. That means flying under 400 feet, always keeping the UAV in your line of sight, using an aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds, and never flying closer than five miles to an airport.

It also means farmers should not be using an UAV for any obvious commercial activity, such as hiring someone to fly over their fields.

"Under no circumstances should a farmer pay any money for someone to fly, because that is unequivocally breaking the rules," Colby explained.

Nor should growers try to sell or profit commercially from the images their UAV flights might produce, he said.

The FAA does list "Taking photographs with a model aircraft for personal use," as a clear hobbyist activity, so farmers can safely do just that.

In the proposed interpretation, the FAA concludes with a statement about the purpose of these regulations: "The law is clear that the FAA may take enforcement action against model aircraft operators who operate their aircraft in a manner that endangers the safety of the national airspace system," the document concludes.

Since farmers flying UAVs over their fields are unlikely to endanger national airspace, they should not consider themselves the target of FAA enforcement, Colby said.

"The FAA is going to make sure air space is safe," he said. "If a grower has a UAV and you're going to fly it recreationally -- maybe over a corn field -- as long as you're not disrupting air space and playing by the rules, you won't have a problem."

Originally, the FAA was scheduled to set forth official regulations on the commercial use of UAVs in September 2015, but both Colby and Shannon noted that the agency is unlikely to meet that deadline.

For now, Colby and Shannon recommended taking steps to ensure UAVs don't draw enforcement action. That includes using pre-programmed flight patterns, limiting a UAV flight to elevations no higher than 400 feet and keeping it within your sight. Don't fly in high winds or bad weather, over homes or buildings, and don't push your battery life, Colby added.

Taking time to comment on the new interpretation will also help the FAA finalize its decision on farming uses of UAVs, Colby said. "The challenge is making sure FAA realizes how valuable this is to the American farmer," he said.

For more information on the FAA and its stance on unmanned aircrafts, see their website here: http://goo.gl/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee.

(CC\SK)


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