WASHINGTON, April 8, 2015 – Potential agricultural operators of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones, would like the government to allow higher, wider ranges for the vehicles, and to ensure the privacy of the data collected by this technology.

The opportunity to comment on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) proposed rule governing the use of small drones, or those 55 pounds and under, ends April 24. The proposed regulations published on Feb. 15 covers commercial use of the devices, including agricultural operations.

Under FAA’s proposal, flights are limited to 500 feet in altitude and to speeds no faster than 100 mph, but the biggest problem for agriculture is the requirement for the vehicle to remain within the operator’s line of sight. This would severely limit a drone’s practical use in orchards, as well as over wide-ranging crop fields and ranchland, said R.J. Karney, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). 

The nation’s largest general farm organization will also be looking for a higher height requirement than the agency is proposing, Karney said. Particularly for scouting large swaths of acreage, being able “to get the aircraft above that 500-foot level” could broaden its scope and provide a larger picture, as well as reduce flight time, he said.

Commercial users can currently apply for a waiver through Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform that would allow flights but no higher than 400 feet. Under current law, any aircraft operation in the national airspace requires a registered aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operational approval. Section 333 grants the Transportation Secretary the authority to provide exemptions for commercial operations on a case-by-case basis. According to FAA, just under 100 exemptions have been granted.

Agriculture is especially interested in the government allowing the general, regulated use of drones, with projections indicating that 80 percent of the economic impact of the technology will be in farming and ranching.

“We’re excited to see this technology unfold and hope it can come at a quicker pace,” Karney said. It’s estimated that the rulemaking process for drones won’t be complete until late 2016 or early 2017.

A 2013 report by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that in the first three years of integration, the technology will create 70,000 jobs with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion. By 2025, the job figure will grow to 100,000, and the economic impact to $82 billion, according to the association. 

Drones will “revolutionize the way we work in agriculture,” Kevin Price, vice president of applied research and technology at AgPixel, told AFBF members at their annual convention earlier this year in San Diego. 

Images from drone cameras can clearly show where weeds are growing, where nitrogen deficiencies exist in the soil and where soil erosion is occurring, as well as instances of double cropping, among other benefits. Unmanned aircraft can also be used to build crop management zones, and eventually, they could more effectively apply nitrogen fertilizer and other inputs.  However, input-application would likely be done by drones larger than 55 pounds and FAA’s proposal only covers those weighing less than that.

Additionally, insurance adjusters could use drone images instead of satellite images to provide more accurate rates.

Under FAA’s proposed rule, an operator must pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate. To maintain certification, the operator would have to pass the test every two years, but would need no further private pilot certifications. The certification rule is an improvement over what the industry feared would be a requirement to obtain a pilot’s license, Karney said.

AFBF will also be assessing if the safety requirements in FAA’s proposal are sufficient. “We need to remember that there are manned aircraft crop sprayers, and they fly at low altitudes,” Karney said. Some sort of light or indicator that would enable another aircraft to see a drone is preferable, he said.

Drones represent another facet in the high-paced advancement of technology in agriculture, and one of the industry’s top concerns, is how to maintain privacy and data ownership in a world revolving around “big data”  

While FAA’s proposed rules are focused strictly on safety, a proposal from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the Commerce Department, asks the public to comment on how NTIA should collaborate with other agencies to secure data privacy regarding the commercial use of drones.

AFBF will also be commenting on this proposal, which closes for public comment on April 20.

“We want to ensure that possession of data remains in the hands of the farmer,” Karney said. “The number-one concern is that a government agency or third party group could use a farmer’s own data against [him or her].”

[This article first appeared in our April 8, 2015 Agri-Pulse newsletter. If you aren’t a subscriber or don’t download our Wednesday newsletters, you’re missing out on stories such as this one.]


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