WASHINGTON, April 29, 2015 – Urging the swift adoption of commercial drone use regulations, agricultural stakeholders are telling the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that they would like the agency to relax some of its proposed restrictions on the operation of so-called Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), most notably limits on operating range. 

The comment period for FAA’s proposed rules governing the commercial operation of small drones, or those 55-pounds and under, opened Feb. 15 and ended April 24. According to an online government portal, the FAA proposal received almost 4,500 comments.

Agricultural operations are especially interested in the government allowing the general, regulated use of drones because of projections that 80 percent of the economic impact of the technology will be in farming and ranching.

“Farmers and ranchers should not be forced to wait years to fully unlock the potential of [small UAS] for helping them plow, plant, fertilize, or apply pest or disease control substances,” Dale Moore, American Farm Bureau Federation’s executive director of public policy, said in his comments.

“In order for American agriculture to maintain a competitive advantage, it is imperative that the FAA’s final rule be sufficiently flexible to allow (farmers and ranchers) to leverage ‘rapidly evolving’ [small UAS] technology safely and without delay.”

Top concerns filed by agricultural groups include the proposed restrictions on operating range and time of day.

Under FAA’s proposal, flights are limited to 500 feet in altitude and to speeds no faster than 100 mph, must remain within the operator’s line of sight, and may only be conducted in daylight—all of which AFBF opposed in its comments.

The proposed rule also bans drone use over persons “not directly participating in the operation” of the system or “not located under a covered structure that can provide reasonable protection from a falling small unmanned aircraft.”

Moore said this requirement is especially problematic for farmers, “as it could lead to the perverse result of banning [small UAS] missions that pass over a single farmer on his or her tractor in the middle of a 500-acre cornfield in Nebraska.”

While he praised FAA’s initiative to propose the rule and to do so without imposing the burden of manned aircraft regulations, Moore said the FAA should at least revise the provisions relating to operations within line of sight, daylight-only, and non-participating persons.

The Small UAV Coalition submitted similar comments, suggesting over 20 revisions to the proposal, including a suggestion for FAA to provide an online procedure for initial and recurrent aeronautical knowledge testing.

Under FAA’s proposed rule, an operator must pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an 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.

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, which says its industry writes $11.4 billion in crop multi-peril insurance annually and almost $3.7 billion in multi-peril insurance, also criticized the line of sight rule. The group asked FAA to consider a rule that would allow drone use out of sight of the operator if the system includes a transmitted video, and if it has a feature that can return the drone to the point of takeoff should it get lost.

“The ability to use drones to inspect barns, farm fields, and other agricultural machinery could significantly increase safety and the ability to respond more quickly to the farming community after a severe weather event,” the Insurers Association said.

Separately, the Farm Bureau also commented on a proposal from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the Commerce Department, regarding data security, privacy and the commercial use of drones. The NTIA proposal asks the public to comment on how it should collaborate with other agencies on securing privacy when drones are in the commercial airspace.

In his comments, AFBF’s Moore said farmers and ranchers must be protected from unauthorized UAS surveillance and privacy invasions. “Given the importance of UAS operations to the future of the farming industry and the unique privacy, transparency and accountability challenges that will arise in the agricultural context, it is critical that AFBF representatives be allowed to contribute during the working group process,” he said.


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