Commercial drone use for agriculture waits on regulations

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Dec. 17, 2014 - Agricultural stakeholders looking for signs of progress in the government's effort to set rules for the commercial use of drones - or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) -- in their operations were disappointed last week at a House hearing on the technology.

Gerald Dillingham, director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office, told members of a the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation subcommittee that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) probably won't issue its final rule governing small UAS until late 2016 or early 2017, or about two years beyond the date set by Congress.

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In addition, Dillingham pointed out that there is a backlog of more than 150 applications for exemptions for use of the drones for commercial purposes, including those submitted by industries for use in precision agriculture and electric power line monitoring. So far only a dozen exemptions have been granted, with seven going to the motion picture industry. Included in the dozen are five new exemptions that were announced as the hearing began, for aerial surveying, construction site monitoring and in oil-rig flare stack inspections.

The latest exemptions went to four companies: Trimble Navigation Ltd., VDOS Global, Clayco Inc. and Woolpert Inc.

Margaret Gilligan, the FAA's assistant administrator for aviation safety, told the lawmakers that a draft rule on small UAS use would be published “soon,” followed by a public comment period, but she refused to be more specific on timing.

“In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress mandated the safe and expedient integration of UAS into the National Airspace System,” she said. “We have been working steadily to accomplish that goal.”

The UAS rule is expected to establish operating and performance standards for commercial use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds, operating below 400 feet and within line of sight. After objections that the latter requirement would prohibit many commercial operations, including large-scale crop monitoring, the FAA's Aviation Rulemaking Committee has formed a working group to study operations beyond visual line of sight.

Several lawmakers expressed concerns that in delaying drone use, the U.S. was giving a competitive advantage to other nations, including the U.K., Canada, Japan and Australia, where UAS commercial operations are already common. At stake is a U.S. industry with the potential to create 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact by 2025, according to figures supplied by the subcommittee staff.

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The FAA's Gilligan agreed that the agency needs to speed up the regulatory process, but not at the expense of safety. She noted that U.S. has the most complex airspace in the world, with more than 80,000 flights a day, or about 10 times the flights in Canada.

Indeed, the safety issue seemed to overhang the entire hearing with several lawmakers referencing recent news stories about the increase in near collisions involving aircraft and drones. And they pointed out that the use of UAS by hobbyists is going to increase dramatically, as small drones are being advertised heavily as Christmas presents, some for $50 or less. 

Also testifying today was Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International, who said operators of drones for commercial operations should be required to meet all the licensing requirements of pilots of manned aircraft. He also called for UAS to be equipped with “collision avoidance” functionalities and urged a stepped up effort to find and prosecute drone users who endanger manned aircraft. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., suggested that requiring drone users, even hobbyists, to register and obtain licenses might help.

The subcommittee chairman, Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., stressed that safety must be the government's foremost concern in regulating drone use.

“Safety is the cornerstone of the U.S. aviation industry and without it the UAS industry cannot succeed, period,” he said.

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