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Get Ready…Widespread Commercial Drone Use is on the Horizon

July 16, 2015
Agriculture Blog Post

Originally published in Michigan Farm News, July 2015.

The agricultural community seems poised and ready to start using unmanned aerial vehicles ("UAVs") as part of its regular agricultural operations. More commonly known as drones, these flying devices have the potential to change the face of the agriculture industry in the United States. With safety considerations in mind, the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") has been slow to approve any widespread commercial use of UAVs, but recent agency actions have indicated a move in that direction.

Farmers and startup companies across the country can see the potential agricultural uses of UAVs. For example, Agribotix is a Colorado-based drone company that markets its drones for their advanced imaging capabilities. The company targets farmers as its primary market, although currently it is focusing on more drone-friendly countries like Brazil and Australia. The maps generated by UAVs can be used for purposes such as measuring crop health, identifying areas prone to weeds and pests, monitoring crop irrigation, evaluating spray drift from neighboring crops, and estimating yield. Managing crops in this more comprehensive, targeted manner could lead to tremendous cost savings and significantly increased yields for farmers.

Of course, drone technologies must be implemented carefully and with safety considerations in mind, particularly given that the U.S. has a busy, complex airspace. The FAA regulates the use of UAVs, but to the frustration of some U.S. farmers, the agency has taken a slow pace in approving widespread commercial drone use. Although current FAA regulations permit the recreational use of small UAVs and model aircraft that fly below 400 feet and remain in the operator's sight and control, commercial use of UAVs is only allowed on a case-by-case basis, usually via a special exemption and waiver.

More widespread permission to use UAVs commercially appears close at hand, however. In February of 2015, the FAA released draft regulations permitting the commercial use of UAVs, subject to several restrictions. The proposed rules, which likely will take over a year to finalize, would allow UAVs weighing 55 pounds or less to fly up to 100 mph at an altitude of up to 500 feet. The use of UAVs would be permitted only during the day. Importantly, the proposed rules would require the drone operator to be FAA-certified to fly UAVs—a process that would cost around $300 and would include an aerospace knowledge test—and the UAVs would have to remain in the operator's line of vision at all times.

Despite the restrictions in the current set of proposed rules, there is some indication that the FAA may be willing to relax these rules. In particular, the agency is facilitating research of "beyond visual line of sight" ("BVLOS") operations, which could lead the agency to approve a limited form of such operations as part of its final commercial UAV regulations. For example, the FAA has granted PrecisionHawk, a North Carolina-based UAV manufacturer that also operates in Canada, India, the UK, and Australia, permission to research BVLOS precision agriculture operations. Such partnerships may ultimately convince the FAA that BVLOS operations are safe and economically desirable.

Farmers hoping to employ UAV technologies should remain patient. Although progress is slow, the FAA is moving towards allowing more widespread commercial use of UAVs. There is huge potential for agricultural applications of UAV technology, so stay tuned and get ready!

This article was written by Kimberly VandenAkker

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