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Drones and agriculture: Where are we now?

Tiffany Dowell Lashmet Published on 25 June 2015
drone over crops

When most people think of drones, the first thing that comes to mind is military operations overseas using these types of unmanned aerial vehicles. It is surprising, then, to learn that agriculture was one of the main reasons drones were created in the first place.

With the recent publication of FAA proposed drone rules, the time may be near when drones are regularly used in American agriculture. Whether it be in precision farming, gathering cattle or checking on stock on large Western ranches, the potential for drone use in the agricultural industry seems unlimited.

There are, however, concerns that drones may be used against the agricultural industry as well.

Current drone law

Currently, the ability to use a drone legally in the U.S. depends on the type of use to which the drone is being put. The use of drones for commercial purposes is banned in the U.S.

Absent express permission from the FAA, drones may not be flown for commercial purposes under current rules. Using a drone for recreation or hobby, however, is allowed provided FAA rules are followed.

Where agricultural use fits in this scheme is somewhat of a gray area. There are certainly arguments to be made that the use of a drone in an agricultural operation is for a commercial purpose.

In light of this, until the FAA finalizes rules regarding the commercial use of drones, ranchers should use drones with extreme caution due to the chance such use may be considered commercial.

Additionally, 13 states have their own drone laws. These are Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Thus, it is important for drone operators to carefully understand the laws in their own state.

The proposed FAA regulations

Earlier this year, the FAA published proposed drone regulations for public comment. The comment period concluded on April 24, 2015, and now the FAA will consider these comments, make any revisions and publish the final regulations.

Here are some of the key requirements included in the proposed rules:

  • Operators must be certified, which requires meeting certain requirements (i.e., at least 17 years old, no drug convictions, no physical or mental condition impairing ability to fly the drone), passing an aeronautical test at an approved testing location and passing a follow-up test every two years.

  • Drones must be registered with the FAA.

  • Operators must have visual contact with the drone using human vision not assisted by any device other than glasses or contacts.

    The operator may enlist additional “visual observers” to assist with this requirement. This requirement may be problematic for use by cattle producers who intend to use drones to check on cattle on large ranches some distance away.

  • Operators and visual observers may only operate one drone at a time.

  • Regulations impose a flight ceiling of 500 feet.

  • Drones must adhere to a speed limit of 100 mph.

  • Three miles minimum visibility from control station is required.

  • Drones may be flown no closer than 500 feet below and 2,000 feet horizontal from any clouds.

  • Drones may not be flown over any persons not involved with the operator and not in a covered structure that would protect them from a falling drone.

  • Not surprisingly, drones may not be flown within certain airspace designated for airports.

  • Night use is prohibited.

The potential use of drones in agriculture

There is no question that many in the agricultural industry are excited about the use of drones. The ability to use drones in precision farming, crop health analysis, monitoring livestock and other agricultural uses has been deemed a “game-changer” by one precision agriculture expert.

Additionally, because the FAA has no final regulations, thereby leaving commercial drone use prohibited for now, U.S. producers are at a disadvantage compared to producers in other countries that are free to use drones in their farming operations,

On the other hand, many farmers and ranchers are concerned over their privacy rights when it comes to drones flying over their property and operations. The proposed FAA rules do not address issues related to privacy or trespass claims, which will instead be left up to state law.

Agricultural producers may have cause for concern here. For example, one environmental blogger has vowed to use drones over large livestock operations to document animal welfare or environmental issues.

Specifically, he intends to use his drones in states that have passed laws prohibiting the use of undercover videos on agricultural operations. In addition to activists, there has been concern that the government – the EPA, for example – may use drones to look in on agricultural operations.

Conclusion

It appears that soon drones will be a legal and potentially integral part of American agriculture.

With the impending publication of finalized FAA rules for drone use, the agricultural industry needs to be prepared for the impact drones will likely have, both positive and negative, on farming and ranching as we know it.  end mark

Tiffany Dowell Lashmet
  • Tiffany Dowell Lashmet

  • Assistant Professor & Extension Specialist Agricultural Law
  • Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
  • Email Tiffany Dowell Lashmet

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