Getting agriculture off the ground

By Bruce Knight

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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) commonly called drones, have been a topic of national conversation for some time due to their use in the military and for surveillance purpose. Recently, however, the attention has been shifting back to the utilization of UAVs for commercial functions. Just last week, the FAA announced they were granting exemptions to six film production companies to permit the use of UAVs under certain conditions. This announcement was an encouraging step from an agency that has continued to drag its feet on clarifying the rules for using UAVs in U.S. airspace and that has warned industry observers that they would likely not meet the 2015 Congressional deadline to safely integrate UAS into national airspace.

Closer to home, the use of UAVs presents a real opportunity for farmers and all of the agriculture community as we see more advances in precision agriculture and data utilization. The potential of the innovation and technology is clearly there. What we need now is more development and research, and that requires more clarity from the FAA to get the vehicles off the ground. Unfortunately for agriculture, the FAA's actions have caused cloudy skies rather than clear regarding the use of UAVs in farming.

Lets Talk Food

Earlier in the summer, the FAA issued a ruling differentiating between “hobby use,” which is permitted, and “non-hobby use,” which is not. To sum up in the language (emphasis mine) from the Agency guidance, if you're using a UAV for “viewing a field to determine whether crops need water when they are grown for personal enjoyment,” UAVs are allowed. However, if you're using one for “determining whether crops need to be watered that are grown as part of a commercial farming operation,” that is not allowed. You could be using the same vehicle, same technology, and even be monitoring the same field, but the minute you begin growing the crops with the intent to sell them commercially (and we all know why we raise crops), it becomes improper to use a UAV over your own land.

If the FAA's chief concern is safety (which it should be), then where exactly is the rationale for this distinction? As Gregory McNeal wrote in Forbes[1], doesn't a farmer using UAVs for commercial purposes have more incentive to ensure safe operation than a hobbyist? Those invested in precision agriculture and the use of UAVs on the farm need the FAA to address these inconsistencies in their current guidance and we shouldn't have to wait.

The recent announcement granting exemptions to these film production companies is a step forward for all of those who stand to benefit from commercial use of UAVs. However, we cannot afford to take the pressure off of the FAA to keep moving in this direction.

It's not lost on me who the first beneficiaries of the FAA's recent action were, and one can only hope that it's not lost on the Administration with former Senator and current President of the Motion Picture Association of America Chris Dodd attending the news conference announcing the waivers. There are a couple of possible explanations for how the FAA is issuing these exemptions. It could be chronological, and these six film production companies were simply the first to submit petitions, or they could be grouped by industry, and film production was just the first on the list. One thing I do know is that it wasn't alphabetical, starting with Agriculture.

Over the next several months, I'll continue to write about the intersection between UAVs and agricultural policy. In fact, it's been reported by the Washington Post that the White House will soon put out an executive order that would require federal agencies to disclose where they plan to operate UAVs in U.S. airspace and what will become of the significant amounts of data collected through surveillance. While this policy will affect federal agencies (likely even the EPA), and not commercial operators of UAVs, it's another signal that the wheels are turning inside the Administration when it comes to this issue, and we can expect more in the near future.

For now, we wait…

Grounded.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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