Agriculture lands first drone approval

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 7, 2015- The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday granted its first exemption allowing commercial use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in agriculture to Advanced Aviation Solutions of Boise, Idaho.

According to the company's petition, its 1.5 pound, fixed-wing eBee Ag UAV, or drone, will be used to make photographic measurements and perform crop scouting for precision agriculture. FAA is developing rules for commercial use of small unmanned aircraft, which is prohibited without an exemption. The FAA says the rules may not be finalized until late 2016 or early 2017.

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Advanced Aviation Solutions is one of three entities that will partner to form Empire Unmanned, said one of the prospective partners, Robert Blair, owner of Three Canyon Farms in Kendrick, Idaho. The third partner is Empire Airlines. The Idaho-based partnership will focus on flying the eBee Ag for commercial use, Blair said.

“We're going to be flying for ag purposes for hire,” said Blair, who claims to be the first farmer in the U.S. to fly UAVs, back in 2006. “It's exciting times for agriculture.”

To obtain the exemption, which took about six months from when the petition was filed, Advanced Aviation Solutions had to agree to a number of restrictions - on speed, distance and altitude (400 feet), as well as a requirement that the drone keep within line of sight at all times. Additionally, the drone pilot must have an FAA private pilot certificate.

“While we can fly commercially, the constraints are not conducive to ag operations,” Blair said, noting that the restrictions will not allow the eBee Ag to cover much land.

“If I have 20,000 acres to scout and can only fly 2,000 acres in a day, that's going to take 10 days,” he said, barring any inclement weather.

The exemption also requires flights to be conducted only over private property and with the permission of the landowner, who must be briefed on the expected route of the flight, Blair said. Flights are also banned over congested areas and must be flown at an altitude that would preclude damage to people or property in case of an emergency landing.

The company must also obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) that ensures the airspace for their proposed operations is safe, and that operators have taken proper steps to see and avoid other aircraft, according to the FAA. The COA also requires the company to file paperwork with FAA for every area in which it is hired to fly. 

Still, Blair said, “this is a great first step… it allows us to move forward and be a case example for the FAA,” Blair added. But, “we need to change the restrictions we're operating under.”

Constructed primarily out of foam, the eBee Ag has wingspan of about 3 feet and a maximum speed of about 50 knots. An onboard geo-referenced still camera can provides high-resolution data to direct variable seeding rates as well as the precise application of fertilizer and chemicals. Advanced Aviation Solutions says this data helps farmers maximize yields while reducing costs and impacts to the environment.

The company said it intends to hire and train military veterans with experience operating small UAVs.

The FAA found that granting the exemption was in the public interest, since it benefits both agriculture and the environment. The agency also determined that the eBee Ag does not pose a threat to national airspace users or national security.

FAA on Tuesday, also granted the first exemption for a UAS to be used in real estate photography, to Douglas Trudeau with Tierra Antigua Realty in Tucson, Arizona. The FAA had earlier granted 12 exemptions to 11 companies involved in the oil and gas, filmmaking, landfill and other industries. One of the exemptions went to Trimble Navigation of Sunnyvale, California, which makes, among other things, the GPS devices that can guide tractors and combines.

The agency has received more than 200 requests for exemptions from commercial entities.

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