Sky's the (400-foot) limit as new drone rules take effect

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 29, 2016 - A new era in agriculture opened on Monday as the Federal Aviation Administration new regulations for routine non-recreational use of small unmanned aircraft, or drones, went into effect.

Companies that want to employ the devices to help farmers check out crop conditions or hunt for missing livestock can do so without going through a ton of red tape. While the regulations require operators to be certified, there is no need for them to get commercial pilot's license as had been the case. 

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The FAA says the interest in using the using the unmanned aircraft systems is high. As of Monday, more than 3,000 people had already signed up to be certified as UAS operators. They include many involved in agriculture, but also surveyors, engineering operations, wedding photographers and people in the entertainment industry. Certification as a remote pilot requires passing an FAA-administered test of aeronautical knowledge - similar to the written test for a driver's license.

The new regulations generally apply to drones weighing 55 pounds or less, and require commercial operators to:

-Keep the drone within sight at all times.

-Keep drones from flying over people not involved in their operation.

-Limit drone operations to the hours from a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset.

-Limit speed to no more than 100 mph and keep the devices below 400 feet.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says the commercial drone industry has the potential to create more than 100,000 jobs and generate more than $82 billion in economic activity over the next decade. At a recent briefing, Brian Wynne, AUVSI's president and CEO, said the new regulations will help bring this about.

 “The United States has been a pioneer in aviation since the Wright Brothers first took to the skies more than 100 years ago, and throughout that period there have been many, many milestones,” Wynne said. “This is another significant milestone. With the small UAS rule now in effect, the commercial UAS industry is cleared for takeoff.”

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Farmers aren't happy with all of the regulations, especially the limits on line-of-sight operations, since many farms are quite large and acreage may not be contiguous. But the FAA noted that waivers can be granted to operations that that can show their plans don't put the public at risk.

Robert Blair, an Idaho wheat farmer who is also vice president of agriculture for Measure, a drone service company, predicts that initially there will be a “run” on applicants for operator certification by farmers. But he said they will eventually have to turn to companies such as Measure to fully benefit from the technology.

“They'll find out that (operating a drone) is not such an easy thing to do,” he said. “Farmers are already about as busy as they can be and this would be adding another job.”

Blair also pointed out that the current weight limit for small drone usage - 55 pounds - limits the applications available to farmers, often to just taking pictures and video. Still to come will be things like aerial application. “That will take a different set of rules,” he said.

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