WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2015 – Agricultural technology continues to improve by leaps and bounds, but use of drone technology in farming is not keeping pace, hampered by delays in regulatory approval, or confusion about rules already in place.

Drones – also called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- have appeared in the skies in recent years, bringing a wide variety of legal issues with them. Because the technology is relatively new in the U.S. – at least for commercial uses – regulators are still exploring the best approaches. R.J. Karney, director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that uncertainty is harming American agriculture.

“Farmers in the U.S. are, unfortunately, behind the 8-ball,” Karney said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “In the short term, we are pushing for the (Federal Aviation Administration) to move forward with their regulations so farmers and ranchers can begin to utilize this technology.”

An FAA spokesman said a proposed rule for smaller drones could be expected by the end of the year. In the meantime, 20 states have adopted laws of their own, but no two pieces of legislation are the same. Some address use by law enforcement; others, use by the general public, while some define what a state considers to be a drone, UAV, or UAS.

The wide variety of applications for drones could lead to a complex set of federal regulations that cover pilot certification, durability and construction standards, and even privacy rights. However, Karney said he expects FAA regulations to stay away from some of the complexities.

“The FAA has made it clear that they are a safety organization and do not want the responsibility of addressing all the privacy issues,” Karney said. He’s heard unconfirmed reports that an executive order from President Barack Obama could move drone-related privacy issues to the National Telecommunication and Information Administration. The White House did not respond to requests for comment regarding a potential executive order.

Karney noted that countries such as Japan and Australia have been using drones in agriculture since the 1980s. An FAA spokesman said delays in putting together regulations for drone use in the U.S. can’t be laid on a single issue.

“There are a number of things involved in integrating unmanned aircraft into the nation’s airspace,” the spokesman said. “It’s the busiest, it’s the most complex airspace in the world, and on any given day it’s used by thousands of general aviation aircraft.”

Currently, FAA is working to use Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 to provide exemptions to companies seeking to use drones for commercial purposes. So far, FAA has received more than 70 petitions from a wide variety of companies, but has granted only six, to film and movie production companies seeking to use drones as cheaper and safer alternatives to helicopters for aerial filming.

Even after companies receive a Section 333 exemption, they also have to apply for what the FAA spokesman called a “Certificate of Waiver or Authorization,” or COA. The COA defines the airspace where the company can operate, and a separate COA will be needed for use at a different location. To translate that ruling to agriculture, a company doing crop scouting with drones would need a separate COA for each field they scout.

The FAA spokesman said the agency was working with agricultural stakeholders to develop new rules and that there was potential for commercial agricultural practices to be added under regulatory authority “with the appropriate safeguards.”

As agriculture and other industries wait for clarification on drone regulations, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International published a report on the economic impact of incorporating drones in U.S. airspace. The report estimated that between 2015 and 2025, drones could grow to account for an $82.1 billion economic impact and create more than 103,000 jobs.

The report said every year drone integration is delayed, the U.S. loses more than $10 billion in potential economic impact, which translates to about $27.6 million lost every day.

“Because of current airspace restrictions, non-defense use of UAS has been extremely limited,” the report said. “However, the combination of greater flexibility, lower capital and lower operating costs could allow UAS to be a transformative technology in fields as diverse as urban infrastructure management, farming, and oil and gas exploration, to name a few.”


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