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Drone use in ag increasing, but lack of FAA rules slowing technology

Farmers' use of drones is increasing but the Federal Aviation Administration's lack of permanent rules for the technology is slowing its development.
Sean Ellis

Capital Press

Published on December 10, 2015 9:07AM

Ag industry representatives ask Empire Unmanned employee Gary Smith about the use of drones for agricultural purposes April 22 following a demonstration flight over Bitner Vineyards in Caldwell, Idaho. Empire’s chief pilot told seed industry members recently that drone use by farmers is increasing rapidly but development of the technology is being slowed by the lack of permanent FAA rules.

Sean Ellis/Capital Press

Ag industry representatives ask Empire Unmanned employee Gary Smith about the use of drones for agricultural purposes April 22 following a demonstration flight over Bitner Vineyards in Caldwell, Idaho. Empire’s chief pilot told seed industry members recently that drone use by farmers is increasing rapidly but development of the technology is being slowed by the lack of permanent FAA rules.

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NAMPA, Idaho — The use of drones in commercial agricultural is beginning to rapidly increase.

But the Federal Aviation Administration’s lack of permanent rules for unmanned aerial vehicles is slowing development of the technology, Ron Looney, chief pilot of Empire Unmanned told a couple hundred people at the Idaho-Eastern Oregon Seed Association’s winter meeting Dec. 2.

Empire Unmanned in January became the first company in the United States to receive an FAA exemption to fly UAVs for commercial agricultural uses.

The Idaho business used drones to image 10,584 acres in 84 fields for 39 customers in 2015, Looney said. Those customers included farmers and researchers and the crops imaged included wheat, onions, alfalfa, sugar beets, corn and grapes.

The company charges about $4 an acre, with a 150-acre minimum.

“We started out slow and are getting bigger all the time,” Looney told Capital Press. “We think it’s going to be a big deal.”

For now, Looney said, the main benefit of drones in agriculture is providing farmers a quick assessment of crop health. This allows a farmer to make replanting decisions quickly, estimate yields, monitor nitrogen update, and see where a crop is stressed or where there are weed or disease issues.

“It also helps with insurance claims so you can show your insurance company exactly where the crop damage is,” he said.

But Looney and North Idaho farmer Robert Blair, vice president of agriculture for Measure LLC, a commercial drone company, said the FAA’s lack of permanent rules for UAVs is hindering further development of the technology for farming purposes.

Any legal commercial drone use right now is being done under an FAA exemption. If any farmer or rancher uses a drone as part of their operation, they are no longer a hobbyist and need an FAA exemption. They also have to have a commercial pilot’s license.

A drone can only be flown within line of sight, which is about half a mile, Looney said, and they can’t be flown within 500 feet of a non-participant.

“That’s a pretty good restriction,” he said. “The restrictions from FAA are also restricting the development of the technology.”

The FAA this year released proposed rules on drone use for public comment and permanent rules could be in place next year, said Blair, an early pioneer of drone use on farms.

Once the FAA has permanent rules in place, he said, “you will see more research being done and we will see more use of this technology.”

“I am excited about the technology,” Blair said. “Farmers are going to benefit from (UAVs).”

Right now, drone use in agriculture is pretty much limited to assessing crop condition, he said, but using UAVs to apply chemicals will happen eventually.

“That application part is going to take some time but it is the natural evolution on the agricultural side of things,” Blair said. “In my lifetime, you will probably see crop duster sized UAVs.”



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