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Experts weigh regulation of ag drones

Mateusz Perkowski
Experts at the Oregon Precision Farming Expo weighed in on the regulatory outlook for unmanned aerial vehicles.

Farmers can generally fly drones on their own property without trouble from the federal government, but they’re operating in a regulatory gray area, experts say. 

Unmanned aerial vehicles have tremendous potential for agriculture but the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t developed rules for their commercial use, according to experts who spoke at the recent Oregon Precision Farming Expo.

The FAA has given conflicting guidance about on-farm use of drones by growers, said attorney Wendie Kellington. 

FAA officials have said they won’t take enforcement action against growers but the agency has also made statements that seem to contradict that position, she said.

“It’s a risk spectrum. Do you feel lucky?” said Kellington. “The risk is low but it’s still there, and it gets higher and higher the higher your profile.”

A recent court decision has also raised questions about the extent of FAA’s authority over unmanned aerial vehicles.

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. FAA has appealed the decision.

In that case, the operator was flying the drone close to buildings and people in a way the FAA considered reckless, Kellington said.

Farmers who use UAVs to capture information about fields that are at least five miles away from an airport likely wouldn’t be considered a high risk, she said.

The agency also isn’t likely to investigate unless it’s is tipped off about UAV usage, Kellington said. “FAA’s involvement is largely complaint-driven.”

Rules for UAVs will be enacted eventually. A law passed in 2012 requires the FAA to write such regulations, though the agency has missed all the procedural milestones so far, she said.

“Congress has shown the political will that these will be integrated into the airspace system,” Kellington said.

Once the regulatory landscape is clearer, drones will likely become a mainstay technology in agriculture, according to experts on the panel.

“It will be rare for a precision farmer not to have one at his disposal,” said Bret Chilcott, president of AgEagle Inc., which takes aerial images of crops.

Farmers will be able to survey their fields from their iPad while drinking their morning coffee, said Jonathan Evans, CEO of Rising Tide Innovations, which makes UAV software.

Drones will also be able to take soil samples and other measurements, said Stephen Burtt, CEO of Aerial Technology International, which sells drone equipment.

“Have you seen Star Wars? That’s the direction it’s going,” he said.

Yamaha, for example, already has a drone that sprays pesticides on farms in Japan and South Korea, said Matt Parker, director of unmanned aerial systems at Precision Integrated Systems.

Some drones are capable of operating 36 hours on a gallon of gas, he said. “It’s extremely efficient.”



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