How will new FAA rules affect agricultural use of drones?

A look at new FAA drone rules and impact on farming. Foundational rules likely to have additions added later.

What do the FAA rules for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones look like? With the Obama administration saying the UAV industry could mean $82 billion in economic growth by 2025 and support up to 100,000 jobs, the FAA wasn’t expected to make the new rules -- released in late June -- extremely strict.

Looking for answers, Delta Farm Press spoke with Rusty Rumley in early July. Rumley, senior staff attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas, has been following the evolution of drone laws for years.

“The timing of the release of FAA regulations wasn’t that big a surprise,” says Rumley. “We’ve been expecting them for some time – really they were supposed to have them done by, I think, last September. Usually it depends on the number of comments the administrative agency receives. And it looks like the FAA received a bunch of comments.”

Among Rumley’s other comments:

On the rules…

“The rules aren’t terribly stringent and apply to drones that weigh up to 55 pounds.

“There were a couple of things folks were wondering about and the FAA addressed. One of those was they don’t want the UAVs flown over large groups of people. There was some talk earlier about making a micro-UAV – say something under 4.5 pounds – that could be flown over crowds to take photos. The FAA decided not to allow that in this round. So, they may come back to it in the future and place rules on the micro-UAVs.

“There was also a lot of interest from groups wanting the FAA to address privacy concerns. It’s kind of been the Wild West out there with states passing laws regulating privacy with drone use. The FAA punted on that saying their duty is to maintain safe, navigable air space and not privacy concerns.

“I kind of expected that to happen. I don’t know if Congress will look at this but privacy is usually a state-by-state issue. Tagged onto that are tort issues – trespass, nuisance and the like.

“I don’t see politicians staying away from UAV privacy worries.”

Requirements

Requirements for farmers using UAVs…

“If farmers decide to use UAVs for viewing crops and the like it won’t be too hard to comply with the FAA requirements. They’ll have to take a test, be over 16 years of age, pass a background check.

“But they’re also responsible for knowing the laws of the state, not just the federal laws. That may mean photographing other people’s land is prohibited, there may be restrictions on all kinds of things. Depending on the state, there may be two or three drone-related laws that have been passed.

“If you’re a farmer wanting to use a drone and think you have the justification to write it off as a business expense, better start studying for the test. You’ll have to be licensed under the FAA.”

On aerial applicators’ reaction to the new FAA rules…

“The rules don’t appear too onerous and that pleased a lot of people.

“However, the ag pilots have been worrying about UAVs for a while. Going back to the 1920s, the lower 500 feet of air space has been for them. That’s primarily for safety reasons, obviously.

“If you’re a pilot and make a mistake under 500 feet of altitude there’s very little time to correct. The only ones that operate in the airspace regularly are (aerial applicators). Every Mid-South farmer knows they fly very, very low every day. Now, these drones will be operating in that low airspace, as well. The pilots are worried if they collide with a drone there won’t be time to recover. 

“So, the ag pilots have wanted much stricter UAV standards from the FAA. That’s understandable – the hazards for them are already plentiful. I’m not an expert on this but my father used to do some spray plane piloting. His plane had blades on the front landing gear to get through barbed wire if the plane got too low.” 

More on the new rules…

“The drones have to be flown during daylight and will likely have to have a number assigned for tracking purposes. Some that will depend on the size of the drone. Right now, the drones have to be used only through line-of-sight – you can only use your eyes and any type of corrective lenses you wear.

“No one is permitted to use any type of avoidance programs because they haven’t been proven. The thought is, as time goes on, the technology will develop more and more those types of programs will be incorporated to help avoid mid-air collisions. This initial set of rules is meant to allow the FAA to add on as time passes.

“It’s important to point out that anyone can fly one of these for recreational purposes. So long as you’re flying a drone purely for recreation none of these FAA rules affect you.”

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