Robert Blair owns a farm in Kendrick, Idaho, that has been in his family more than a century. Since 2006, he has also owned an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone.
That's no coincidence: Blair would like to fly his camera-equipped craft over his fields. A 2013 study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicted that 90 percent of drone use will center on agricultural purposes. "Farmers have to go out and scout their crops every couple of weeks," he explains. A drone crisscrossing the air could perform that work much more effectively. Aerial surveillance could create "precision agriculture" applications that, in the grand scheme, could improve food safety, increase food supply and decrease pesticide use -- all of which would be good economically for farmers and environmentally for all of us. But the U.S. government won't let Blair use his drone to improve his crops.
That's because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bans any use of drones for commercial purposes, allowing only "hobbyists" to fly them for fun. That prohibition stems from a 1981 advisory titled "Model Aircraft Operating Standards." It's not a law, per se, but guidance for hobbyists to keep drones away from sensitive areas and to fly them under 400 feet to avoid other aircraft. While Blair -- who writes a blog called The Unmanned Farmer -- admits to using his drone in limited ways on his farm, "flying under hobby rules in that gray area, doing scouting," as he puts it, even that act would probably earn him one of the cease-and-desist letters the FAA sends out when it learns of anyone flying a drone for commercial purposes without a special permit, usually granted to universities and law enforcement agencies.
The good news is that the FAA is developing drone-use rules, which should be finalized in late 2015. But there's impatience with the time frame, and in February, state agriculture officials unanimously called for continued development of drone technology for farming use.
The main concerns about UAVs center on airspace safety and privacy issues. When Amazon announced its intention to eventually deliver packages by drones, the huge buzz was accompanied by many eyebrow-raising questions: what about potential aerial collisions or malfunctioning crafts dropping out of the sky or drones capturing images of people and their residences?
But agricultural use differs significantly from urban package delivery. "Typically you're talking about a farmer flying in a very sparsely populated area over his own property, at low altitudes," says James Mackler, lead attorney of a practice group focused on drones at Nashville law firm Bone McAllester Norton. "So there's very little risk of collision," he notes, and "much-reduced privacy issues." Property rights come into play, Mackler adds: "If the FAA tells a farmer he can't fly a UAV 50 feet over his crops, that farmer has every right to say, 'Hey, wait a second, this is my land. You let me use the air 50 feet above it in every other way. I can build towers 50 feet high, I can fly a kite, whatever. Why is this the one thing I can't do?' "
Agricultural use also brings a public benefit. "In an hour you can cover a 500-acre field and automatically receive a digital, tiled mosaic to proactively monitor all crop activities," explains Lia Reich, spokesperson for PrecisionHawk, a developer of UAVs and associated imaging software. "Each 'tile' of that mosaic can be analyzed and looked over individually to identify a trouble spot or can be viewed as a whole 'big picture.' " The data have the potential to improve plant health and increase yields by detecting diseases and pests, and to decrease pesticide use and water waste through targeted applications. PrecisionHawk has been able to get around FAA rules either by pairing businesses with universities with permits or by developing projects outside the United States, Reich says.
The nagging question is whether the FAA's forthcoming commercial drone regulations will account for agriculture's unique circumstances. "I fear they're going to use a very broad brush, at least initially, and regulate for the most dangerous situation," Mackler says. He also wonders whether farmers -- generally an independent-minded bunch -- will allow their concerns over privacy to overshadow the benefits of drone use.
North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring, who authored the pro-UAV statement endorsed by all the other state agriculture commissioners, says he brought up the issue because "There were just so many applications to this. ... So I just see the unlimited potential." But he immediately qualifies his enthusiasm by adding, "Privacy is an issue."
The FAA recently designated six UAV test sites, selected for their variety of geographies, infrastructure densities, and airspace uses. In North Dakota, the state Department of Commerce and university researchers will run one rural test site. But from where he sits back in Idaho, Blair worries that the input of actual working farmers is being overlooked. "Agriculture still does not have a seat at the table to help write the rules and regulations for its own industry -- even though agriculture has been tapped as the first industry use for UAVs," he says with frustration. He notes that Japan has been using drones for agricultural purposes for more than 15 years. "And our FAA, I'm sure, has known about it."
Image courtesy of PrecisionHawk
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