Precision agriculture is becoming more precise, and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are going to play an important role in enabling farmers and ranchers to address the needs of plants and animals on an individual basis.  That’s why the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations regarding the inclusion of UAS into the national airspace should matter to everyone involved in agriculture. 

The FAA notice of proposed rulemaking, highlighted in the Agri-Pulse article “Higher, wider, more secure: What ag wants from FAA drone rules,” explains how the agency plans to approach the rulemaking process.  The safety rules and regulations will cover “small UAS”, that is, 55 pounds or less, and the agriculture community should take advantage of the opportunity to comment before the April 24 deadline.   

UAS technology is going to be a major change agent for agriculture.  I expect the sensor technologies, which are fundamental to drone use, to revolutionize how we do business in a magnitude comparable to the changes brought about by hybrid seed corn, penicillin, and the personal computer.   In fact, drones are likely to become a multi-billion dollar industry with nearly 80 percent of the economic impact of UAS technology tied to agriculture uses.   

It’s important to note that these are surveillance aircraft, not planes used for agricultural operations, such as crop dusters.  Today’s technology can make it possible for to you to send a UAV out over your field with a camera attached to the bottom, snapping shots of your growing plants using state-of-the-art imaging and sensors, and with the increasingly sophisticated monitoring technology, soon you’ll be able to get accurate stand counts a week or two after emergence.  You’ll be able to target individual plants for additional nutrients and pinpoint those areas where weeds, pests, or diseases are present.   Eventually, you’ll even be able to determine whether the weeds are just garden variety or specifically herbicide-resistant, so you can treat them accordingly.

Ranchers will also be able to tell from the data gathered by UAS which of their cows have a fever.  How?  The advanced technology utilized by the sensors and cameras flying can capture variations in light reflected from the cows based on their temperatures – variations that are invisible to the human eye. Pair that with the RFID tag and you have the information you need to provide your herd or feedlot with the proper treatment.   As the costs of these technologies fall, and if the regulations allow, we will be able to check cattle, view gates, and see into water tanks remotely.  

UAS are going to become a wonderful conservation tool.  The data they provide will help us target our resources exactly where they need to go.  We won’t be wasting nitrogen, pesticides, or herbicides, saving farmers money while also reducing the amount of product inadvertently finding its way into rivers and streams.

In the proposal issued on February 23, 2015, the FAA recommended a 500-foot ceiling and a 100 mph speed limit for small UAS.  The FAA’s primary concern is safety, so although the agency is not requiring that operators have a pilot’s license, the FAA would require operator certification every two years.  In addition, flights could only be conducted during daylight hours within the visual line-of-sight of the operator.  To take a look at the proposal, go to and choose the February 23 proposal on small UAS.  To comment, follow the directions at the beginning of the proposal.

Meanwhile, the FAA has already begun granting exemptions that are gradually bringing UAS into commercial operation, even before the proposed rules are finalized, and many entities interested in serving agriculture are already getting in on the action. The FAA grants exemptions under the authority of Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 on a case-by-case basis, with appropriate consideration for public safety.  As of April 15, 28 of the 128 exemptions granted have specifically included mention of agriculture or crop monitoring, and more are surely on the way.

There are still a number of issues we need to work through regarding the commercial use of UAS.  What requirements will there be for operator certification? If it’s not okay to fly drones over people, is it okay to fly them over animals? To cover more territory, do we need a higher drone ceiling than 500 feet? Is there a way to address safety concerns while not requiring the “line-of-sight” restriction? I have no doubt other questions will arise as well.

Nevertheless, I am excited about this technology and its potential for increasing productivity, reducing costs, and benefiting the environment.  I don’t think every farmer will have a fleet of UAVs, but I do think certified crop appraisers, input suppliers, and applicators may want to consider becoming certified to operate UAS, enabling them to provide up to the minute, detailed advice to the farmers they serve.  It’s not difficult to see how UAS can become a great scouting device that can quickly cover the land and pinpoint problems.

I believe the FAA wants to get this right—balancing the need for public safety with the prospect of making a tool available to those who can use it effectively.  Farm and commodity groups, USDA, and the House and Senate Ag committees lack policy experience, oversight, and jurisdiction on this issue.  Meanwhile, developers and lawyers from the defense industry are weighing in with the FAA to determine the rules of the air.  As farmers and ranchers, we need to provide helpful input to the agency (and our interest groups) so the FAA produces a rule that meets everyone’s needs and goals. We are at a crucial point in this process, and I would encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity to make your voice heard.

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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