Christopher Doering, USA TODAY
As farmers press ahead using drones, there is some uncertainty over how much flexibility the federal government has really given agriculture to use the aircraft. Even farm operators and drone companies are divided over how much authority they have been given to fly the aircraft.
Later this year, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to propose rules for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. This should cover most uses on the farm. Until then, the agency said some operators will continue to incorrectly assume they can operate drones under the guise of existing model aircraft rules — which would cover planes flown for personal use below 400 feet, within eye site and a safe distance from airports and populated areas. The use by people or companies for business purposes is not allowed.
There also is uncertainty today as to whether a farmer who decides to use his own drone to survey crops would be considered a commercial entity. The FAA does not allow drones to be used for commercial operations unless they apply for a special exemption. Government and universities can operate drones as long as they get a waiver and fly them within a specific area.
“We are concerned about any (unmanned aircraft systems) operation that poses a hazard to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground,” the agency said in a statement. “If we receive a complaint about such UAS flights, we investigate to determine if the operator violated FAA safety regulations.”
Brent Johnson, who uses a drone on his Iowa farm, said the lack of rules from the FAA is the biggest challenge for farmers eager to embrace the technology.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has been pressing the FAA to allow limited drone use for some operations, such as farmers and movies, citing authority already granted by Congress. “Instead, they are taking a one-size-fits-all approach, which is to regulate the entire airspace to prevent anyone from flying,” said Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
As federal regulators struggle to define how drones can be used for commercial purposes, many other countries have loose guidelines for how they can be used. Drones are being used for ag in a slew of countries, including Canada, Australia, Japan and Brazil.
Kevin Price, a former Kansas State professor who is now an executive vice president of commercial integration with RoboFlight, told attendees of a January farm conference that farmers should begin learning how to use drones rather than waiting until the FAA acts. “It’s going to blow your socks off. There is no question this technology is moving forward, and it’s going to move fast,” Price said. “Don’t wait. If you’re going to wait until the FAA says you can, then you’ll be two years behind everybody else.”