Unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAVs”), commonly referred to as drones, are an emerging tool for agriculture producers throughout the United States. As UAVs advance, they will help producers inspect their properties more efficiently and cost effectively. Farmers will be able to reduce time and costs for assessing where and when to apply fertilizer and water, for example. Ranchers could locate livestock with less work and time involved.
The UAV industry is just beginning to gather steam, and the next several years should see a significant amount of innovations and refinement of capabilities, all of which stand to benefit agriculture. The Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International estimates that agricultural use could make up 80% of the commercial UAV industry.
However, federal law currently prohibits the use of UAVs for commercial application1—even where the operator is using the UAV on his or her own operation—without an exemption. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in the process of promulgating rules that will allow more widespread use of UAVs for commercial application, but those rules are not expected to go into effect until late 2016 or early 2017.
In the meantime, agriculture does not have to wait. Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 allows operators the ability to obtain exemptions from FAA rules applicable to flights within the National Airspace System (NAS). To date, the FAA has issued over one thousand Section 333 Exemptions, many to those seeking to use UAVs for agricultural purposes.
The Section 333 Exemption process provides operators who wish to pursue safe and legal entry into the NAS a competitive advantage in the UAV marketplace, thus discouraging illegal operations and improving safety. The FAA anticipates that this activity will result in significant economic benefits, and the FAA has identified this as a high priority project to address demand for the commercial use of UAVs.
1Current federal law does not prohibit the use of UAVs for “hobby” or “recreational” purposes, which means: (1) the UAV is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use; (2) the UAV is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization; (3) the UAV weighs less than 55 pounds; (4) the UAV does not interfere with manned aircraft; and (5) the UAV is not flown within five miles of an airport.
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