Agricultural operations and agri-businesses hoping to leverage the use drones need to brand these so-called Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) before skeptics of the technology do it for them, former U.S. Grains Council CEO Thomas Dorr said Tuesday during an event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

“If this industry doesn’t at the very get-go address the public perceptions… it’s going to be fighting an uphill battle sooner than anticipated,” Dorr said.

Dorr pointed to the problems agricultural biotechnology has had getting genetically modified crops accepted by the general public and said UAS proponents should find out where that industry “went wrong” as it pushes for wider public use.

“You in the industry are going to have to spend resources and time figuring out how you’re going to brand the technology,” Dorr said, warning that without that preparation, they may have to fight tough political battles involving privacy rights.

Drones cannot be widely used in U.S. agriculture today because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not allow unmanned flight for commercial purposes. But Congress has ordered the agency to incorporate unmanned aerial systems into U.S. airspace by September 30, 2015. Several pilot programs are currently underway.

Regulations under consideration would expand the use of drones weighing less than 50 pounds. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the proposals would be made final in November.

“We need to take a deliberate and measured approach when integrating UAS technology into the national airspace system,” Huerta said at the Chamber of Commerce event. “The pressure to move quickly is very high because the potential for this technology is very high.”

Small drones could be used in agriculture to monitor or spray crops, in retail photography, or in many industries to deliver products. Curt Chestnutt, the vice president of UAS Business Development at AeroVironment, said potential uses are “burgeoning and almost unlimited.”

FAA is establishing six test sites for UAS research and development, the first of which is expected to be operational no later than this summer, Huerta said.

Dorr said the certification and legal framework that could be a product of the FAA test sites needs to be completed sooner rather than later.

“A lot of weather data systems are being put together out there that could have a dramatic impact on how we use our natural resource base,” Dorr said. “I would hate to lose that technology from these companies simply because we don’t have the platform for regulation and certification.”

Dorr said the world’s middle class will add 2 billion people by 2020, creating $2 trillion dollars a year in new food demand and driving the need for new technologies that can boost farm production. Opportunities for drone technology in agriculture alone should be a driving factor in freeing it up for commercial use, he said.

“A host of new technologies are demanding new policy approaches to satisfy these needs in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner,” Dorr said. “We should not be consumed by overregulating this technology.”

Although the FAA has no rules yet governing drone use, state and local governments and universities can apply for waivers to experiment with the devices. Huerta said FAA has issued hundreds of waivers to public entities to use at crime scenes or fire, and to universities for research. 

M. Bradford Foley, the president of Gannet International, an Alexandria, Virginia-based unmanned systems and advanced technologies company, noted that about a dozen states have enacted legislation limiting the use of drone technology. He emphasized that international competition, including from Israel and China, is growing regarding the development of UAS.

“When we put a lot of restriction on UAS, we back off of our economic competitiveness,” Foley said.

Dorr pointed out that Japan is using the technology on its smallholder farms, and China is looking into drones for use in its land reform initiatives. 

Huerta, meanwhile, emphasized that there are about 200,000 regulated general aviation aircraft in the U.S., making its airspace the busiest in the world. “For this technology to thrive it has to be safe,” he said. “No other country in the world that has the density and complexity of our general aviation industry.”

An administrative law judge recently ruled against the FAA after it fined a Swiss drone operator for operating recklessly. In Pirker v. Huerta, National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty held that the FAA’s ban on the commercial use of small drones is not enforceable. The ruling could open the skies below 400 feet for commercial drone use. 

However, Huerta said nothing has changed just yet, because FAA appealed the decision.

Michael Toscano, CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, in a recent Agri-Pulse Open Mic interview, discussed the confusion stemming from FAA rules, which do not regulate recreational use of drones, but require authorization for any commercial use of aircraft. 

“If the farmer owns all the land, some people believe they can fly (a drone) right now,” Toscano said. “So this is a grey area. Is this something for a commercial aspect if the farmer owns it and doing it on his own property? It’s still something we’re trying to figure out.”


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