FAA prevents ag drones from taking off

Federal regulatory inertia on the commerical use of unmanned aerial vehicles could stiffle innovation as farmers and entrepreneurs find ways to use drones in agriculture.

Published on April 17, 2014 12:38PM

Last changed on April 17, 2014 12:49PM

Our View

The Wright Brothers became the first to fly a fixed-wing, powered aircraft on Dec. 17, 1903.

Their short flight on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C., changed the world, and inspired a generation of innovators and entrepreneurs who improved the machine and invented uses Orville and Wilbur had not dreamed.

Lucky for the Wrights and other aviation pioneers, federal regulation of the industry didn’t come until 1926, long after viable aircraft had been developed and their commercial applications had been established.

Sadly, those trying to realize the commercial potential of unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — in agriculture and other industries aren’t as lucky.

Developers had long been working on non-lethal applications for UAVs when Americans generally became aware of drones through their use in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Armed with the proper instrumentation, drones can complete any number of objectives. They have been used in search-and-rescue missions, to film movies, to follow migrating whales and monitor forest fires. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos told “60 Minutes” that his company is working on delivering products with UAVs, and a lakeside tavern in Wisconsin recently used a drone to deliver beer to nearby ice fishing shacks.

UAVs have tremendous potential in agriculture. Among other things, they can be used to monitor crops, take soil samples and other measurements, and help growers make decisions about seeding, chemical applications and irrigation.

Simple drones equipped with cameras and other unsophisticated instruments are available at hobby shops for a few hundred dollars. Commercial models adapted for more sophisticated uses are in production and can costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the innovators and entrepreneurs quickly flew afoul of the Federal Aviation Administration.

It says any commercial use — liberally defined as any use intended to further a for-profit goal — is illegal because it hasn’t yet formulated the controlling regulations.

In 2012, the agency fined a drone operator $10,000 for making a paid promotional video and flying the UAV in an unsafe manner.

In March, an administrative judge threw out the fine because FAA’s jurisdiction doesn’t apply to model aircraft and the agency hasn’t established regulations for UAVs.

The FAA has appealed the decision.

Some drone advocates say it’s unlikely the FAA would fine a grower operating in his own field. At best, commercial operators are in a gray regulatory area.

No one would argue that some level of oversight is needed to keep the airways and public safe. We, along with UAV advocates, legitimately question the pace.

The administration is under mandate from Congress to finish rules regulating UAVs, and promises to have drones “fully integrated” into its regulation of U.S. airspace by the end of next year.

The FAA says it’s “moving steadily.” So are glaciers. But as is nearly always the case, the technology advances in leaps and bounds.

Despite bureaucratic inertia, dreams still take flight.


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