Commercial Farming, Other Industries React to Forthcoming FAA Drone Rules


News about forthcoming rules from the Federal Aviation Administration for the operation of drones was met with mixed reaction by those experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles. At least one person expressed concern that the rules may inhibit adoption by farmers, while others saw any potential movement by the FAA as a good sign that the industry might move forward.

Federal rules on commercial drones are expected to require operators to have a license and limit flights to daylight hours, below 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls, the Journal’s Jack Nicas and Andy Pasztor reported Monday. The FAA is still in the process of drafting the rules, so it can’t comment on them, an FAA spokesman told CIO Journal.

The line of sight rule may be an issue for commercial farming because of the huge acreages involved, said Phil Hamm, director of the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Oregon State University. For the past two summers, the university has used unmanned aerial vehicles to photograph potato crops for monitoring purposes. This work was done under a permit for research testing from the FAA.

“You want to be able to pre-program these vehicles to fly your fields and return home,” he told CIO Journal. While farmers may have someone guiding them from a central place, a line of sight rule means that you can only fly one circle of 125 acres, he added.

And, while Oregon State has used licensed pilots to operate its unmanned aerial vehicles, Mr. Hamm told CIO Journal that the requirement may not be necessary for all types of drones, particularly the smallest ones.

Still, some in the industry welcomed any sign that the FAA might be moving forward with rules. “The forthcoming FAA rulemaking is a critical milestone in the unmanned aircraft systems integration process, and one that is long overdue,” said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, in an email. “After continued delays in the rulemaking process, the release of the proposed rule will bring us one step closer to realizing the many societal and economic benefits of UAS technology,” he added.

Mr. Toscano said he hadn’t yet seen the draft rule and could not comment on specifics. “As an industry, we believe it’s important that the forthcoming rule enables the many civil and commercial uses for UAS technology in a safe and responsible manner without being unnecessarily restrictive,” he said.

The agriculture industry should appreciate the decision as it will drive manufacturers and operators to improve their equipment and operations to match safety and standards that have made our national airspace a safe and effective means for commerce, said Brian Whiteside, president of VDOS Global LLC, which wants to use its drones to perform inspections in the Gulf of Mexico for a major energy producer.  “While this may have some short-term negative effects, long term this is what is needed to bring the technology forward,” he added.

Currently, FAA regulations effectively prohibit the use of commercial drones unless an exemption has been granted. On September 25, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that the FAA had granted the first exemptions for the commercial use of drones to some aerial photo and video production companies for use in Hollywood. The FAA has not yet granted exemptions for the commercial use of drones in the agricultural industry, but companies say they hope the agency might do so by the end of the year.