Agriculture faces another regulatory obstacle to adopting precision technology tools in California. Aerial applicators have taken issue with a measure sponsored and supported by the California Farm Bureau to modernize the training process for drone applicators.

Unmanned aerial aircraft provide farmers an opportunity to lower labor and input costs on pesticide applications. Spot treatments eliminate the need for field-wide applications and removes barriers for small farmers, nursery operators and vineyard managers who often lose border crops to pests. Proponents also point out that mechanizing the practice reduces the potential exposure to workers and that the targeted applications mitigate spray drift for neighboring communities.

But California’s regulatory hurdles have kept the precision tool out of the hands of most farmers. According to Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer drone applicators must train alongside fixed-wing pilots to get a license—with just seven drone licenses issued to date, compared to hundreds for fixed-wing aircraft. Applicators must pass a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) exam, then serve as an apprentice pilot and train under a journeyman for 50 hours, before taking an exam with the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) to become a licensed aerial pesticide applicator.

“This precision technology is not entering our agriculture industry because the training required by the state does not align with how technology makes it into the market,” said Jones-Sawyer, during a recent policy committee hearing.

The farm bureau argues that the skills needed for piloting fixed-wing aircraft are different from the skills and knowledge needed for drones and the “regulatory misalignment” has led to a lack of new drone pilots.

Jones-Sawyer has introduced Assembly Bill 1016 to correct this by authorizing DPR to establish a training program for unmanned aerial systems. AB 1016 would streamline the process by allowing FAA-licensed drone pilots to take the DPR training program for aerial pesticide spraying without completing the 50-hour apprenticeship first.

Reggie Jones-SawyerReggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles

Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, reasoned that allowing for more drones would protect workers from potential exposure and save pesticide, water and fuel costs as well as the associated climate and environmental impacts. He also touted drones as a pathway for upskilling farmworkers and drive workforce development while encouraging students to enter agricultural careers.

San Diego farmer Al Stehly has purchased a $20,000 drone and gathered two of three FAA licenses needed for him and his employees. But the most difficult hurdle, he said, is the outdated apprenticeship and journeyman process for obtaining a license in California.

Stehly testified that the remote technology would replace gas-powered mist blowers. Applicators carry the 60-pound equipment on their backs as they attempt to walk at a steady, slow pace to maintain uniform applications, while climbing up and down hills and avoiding gopher holes and rocks. Stehly stressed that drone applicators would still have to comply with safety and training standards under the bill.

“California is second to none in promoting and regulating safe pesticide use and this bill will ensure that that continues,” he said.

Stehly added that the technology would not replace conventional fixed-wing applicators, since drones can fill in where planes and helicopters are impractical or costly.

The comments, however, have not assuaged Terry Gage, who leads the California Agricultural Aircraft Association.

Don’t miss a beat! It’s easy to sign up for a FREE month of Agri-Pulse news! For the latest on what’s happening in Washington, D.C. and around the country in agriculture, just click here.

“This is a powerful tool and this is going to be a valuable tool to the agricultural industry,” said Gage. “But when we implement new technology, we need to be thoughtful about it and we need to implement it correctly.”

She worried about the implications of removing the mentorship program within the journeyman process, losing shared knowledge that is passed down to new pilots. Gage also raised safety concerns with training pilots for small drones, when “we know these drones are going to get larger” and more complex. Her amendments would limit the size of drones for the DPR training program.

Rob Scherzinger, an agricultural pilot of 50 years, noted that autonomous helicopters are now available with the capacity to carry 700-gallon tanks.

“There really is no shortcut to this part,” he said of the supervised apprenticeship program. “It's really important to learn what you're doing from people who have done it before.”

He agreed that drones are a positive evolution of the industry and that the process to become a certified operator is not easy—“but it's not easy to be an ag pilot.”

Jones-Sawyer responded that DPR, “an independent body,” would formulate the regulations and determine the appropriate protocols needed for the training.

The bill has gained broad bipartisan support from two committees and awaits a decision this week from the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which could deem the $436,000 ongoing cost too much for the state to bear during an economic downturn.

The Legislature has also been advancing legislation to set new privacy and cybersecurity requirements on drones operated by state and local government entities. Such privacy and safety concerns have escalated within the agriculture community in relation to privately operated drones. The Central California Intelligence Center and Sacramento County Sheriff's Office have been warning rural communities that criminals are deploying drones to scout for equipment to steal, while animal rights activists are using them to record dairy and ranch practices. Officials are advising them to keep a distance from the aircraft and call law enforcement.

For more news, go to