By Casey Wooten
June 23 — New rules on the commercial use of drones figure to help agriculture, but more regulatory work needs to be done, farmers said at a House hearing.
Released on June 21, the final rules, also called Part 107, are meant to streamline the use of drones in the commercial space and set safety and permitting standards (See previous story, 06/22/16).
“With the announcement of Part 107 on June 21 by the Federal Aviation Administration, there is a certainty that [drone] operations are here to stay in the United States and agriculture can benefit, however, there is still work that needs to be done,” Robert Blair, an Idaho-based farmer, told members of the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management on June 23.
The rules cover the commercial use of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), under 55 pounds. Blair and other farmers said they would like to see regulators address larger drones, such as those that can deliver fertilizers and pesticides to crops.
“Furthermore, Congress and USDA need to start working today to incorporate UAVs into the next farm bill, while the FAA should strongly consider giving agriculture a seat at the UAV rulemaking table,” Blair said.
As part of the new rules—which will take effect in August—unmanned commercial aircraft lighter than 55 pounds can fly as high as 400 feet and as fast as 100 miles per hour during the day. More restrictions will be in place for flying drones at night. Drones will not be allowed to fly over people, such as farm workers, and pilots will be required to take a written test and undergo a security exam. Operators must also maintain a line of sight with the aircraft.
For farmers, the rules mean they will have to go through fewer regulatory hurdles to operate drones for things like spotting drought-stricken parts of a field or monitoring crop disease and infestation, R.J. Karney, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Bloomberg BNA.
“From the Farm Bureau's perspective it's a welcome news to finally have final rules and to no longer have the only game in town be the Section 333 exemption, the waiver process,” Karney said.
Currently, farmers and other business owners must obtain a Section 333 permit—which exempts an aircraft operator from rules requiring a pilot's license—if they wish to use drones for commercial purposes.
Karney said the new rules aren't perfect. Requirements that drones remain within the line of sight of the operator could be a problem for some farmers.
“Some of their land is not contiguous, so it's not as simple as flying over your own field,” Karney said.
Farmers would have to fly over one portion, then land, transport the drone and launch it again, reducing efficiency and consuming valuable daylight hours.
Additionally, the rules require that drones not fly over people, which could complicate their use when farm workers are in a field that needs observing, Karney said.
The rules do retain a way to get an exemption on the new usage requirements.
Farmers can apply for the same Section 333 exemption they used prior to the final rules if they need to fly into restricted airspace, fly higher than 400 feet or perform an activity not addressed by the rules.
But the rules were created in part to alleviate the backlog of Section 333 exemption applications. Drone users who ask for permission to go outside the new rules can expect close scrutiny from the FAA, said John Mashni, an attorney at Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC, who works with clients that employ drones in their business.
“I think in order for the FAA to grant any application for a waiver for these restrictions, there's probably going to have to be an accompanying safety consideration,” told Bloomberg BNA.
That may include more pilot qualifications, multiple observers beyond just the drone operators or other additional safety measures, he said.
“Everything is tempered with this idea of safety,” Mashni said. “I think this is a good step, in my opinion, but it doesn't cover everything.”
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