FAA Small Drone Proposal Embraced By Agriculture Industry; Crop Benefits Seen

Daily Report for Executives provides in-depth coverage of unfolding legislative, regulatory, and judicial news from the nation’s capital, the states, and around the world. This daily news service...

By Catherine Boudreau

Feb. 18 — The benefits of using drones on farms—from scouting crops to managing inputs like nitrogen and herbicides—have the agriculture industry embracing the Federal Aviation Administration's proposed rule for commercial use of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

UAS technology is used for precision farming by capturing high resolution images of fields that are transformed into a mosaic map. The map can help farmers count crops and locate those that are too wet or dry, have been damaged by the weather or infected by pests or disease.

Drone camera sensors also can detect water management systems, erosion and nutrients in the soil. Analysis of that data can impact where and how much fertilizer a farmer decides to apply, for example, which can prevent runoff and have a positive impact on the environment.

“Any way to lower environmental impact while reducing input costs for farmers, as well as increasing production to feed a growing global population, is a recipe for success,” R.J. Karney, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), said.

Proposal Fit for Agriculture

The FAA on Feb. 15 laid out a framework for drones weighing 55 pounds or less that would restrict flights to daylight hours, 500 feet of altitude and 100 miles per hour. The small UAS would have to remain within the operator's line of sight and not be flown over people, other than those involved with the flight.

“That’s perfect for agriculture because generally farms fit those categories,” Brian Wynne, president and chief executive officer of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said.

AUVSI estimates that drones represent a roughly $82 billion economic opportunity during the first 10 years after the FAA proposal is finalized. Agriculture would account for 80 percent of that, Wynne said. He noted that it will take at least 18 months before the FAA completes the regulation.

In the meantime, stakeholders plan to persuade the agriculture industry and Congress that UAS is a technology to be trusted. That includes PrecisionHawk, which sells UAS hardware and provides software and training services to risk management agencies, multinational companies and universities doing research.

“We really do see this as a tool on every farm in America just like a John Deere tractor,” Lia Reich, spokeswoman for PrecisionHawk, said.

FAA Drone Approvals

The FAA currently approves commercial use of drones on a case-by-case basis, requiring operators to obtain a private pilot's license or have experience controlling manned aircraft, among other stipulations. Under the new proposal, drone operators would have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and have an FAA UAS operator certificate.

These proposed changes to operator requirements were welcomed by the agriculture industry, which said the current system is lengthy, costly and demands a lot of paperwork.

“We think the regulations that came out are a really great start,” Reich of PrecisionHawk said. She added that less than 30 percent of PrecisionHawk's business will take place in the U.S. until the FAA proposal is completed.

The FAA has granted 24 requests for the commercial use of drones to date, including one in January for Advanced Aviations Solutions (AVA), which works with farmers in Idaho. Monsanto Co.'s Climate Corp. has applied for FAA approval.

Regions including Canada, Latin America, Europe and Japan use commercial drones in agriculture.

Line of Sight, Data Privacy

Stakeholders said many companies, and potentially farmers with thousands of acres, will want to be able to fly beyond line of sight. The FAA under its proposal said farmers can address this limitation by placing spotters to track a drone.

Other systems may potentially be explored as long as there is adequate communication, Robert Moorhead, director of the Mississippi State University Geosystems Research Institute, said.

“Beyond line of sight is something the FAA may let up on,” Moorhead told Bloomberg BNA, adding that farmers also may seek waivers to be able to operate drones at night because the imagery is better.

Reich of PrecisionHawk, whose company stores agriculture data on a cloud-based system, said another issue is privacy.

“Data privacy is of the utmost importance to us, especially because we work with a number of competitors in this space like large-scale feed operations,” Reich said. “We make sure data is encrypted during transfers and negotiate data contracts with our customers.”

Farmers should understand what they are agreeing to in terms of ownership of the data when negotiating contracts, Karney of the AFBF said. For example, concerns include the cost of it and ensuring it can be shared across multiple platforms.

To contact the reporter on this story: Catherine Boudreau in Washington at cboudreau@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com