The buzz word in technology the last year and a half+ has been “Drones” also known as UASs.  The FAA has been less than kind in keeping up with the new exploding technology and as such, the Chinese have captured and maintains 70% of the manufactured market.  Previous to March, 2016, any UAS destine for the USA commercial market had to have an FAA issued “Air Worthiness Certificate”.  The FAA’s certification process ranged from 6 – 12 month thus none of the rapidly emerging safety features in new models could come to market.  Post, March 2016, the FAA had no choice but to eliminate the certification process for UASs to be used in Commercial Activity.  In the beginning, to commercially fly a drone, required the operator to hold an FAA rating certificate at least equivalent to a private pilot or higher plus, hold an FAA issued 333 exemption certificate filed for specific flight activities along with performance exclusively limited to a specified UAS model with an approved Air Worthiness certificate. With a back log of thousands growing for the granting of a 333 exemption (only 20 – 150 approvals being made per week) the FAA had no choice but implement an easier path to pilot certification.  In August, 2016, that reality came to pass with the FAA implementing rule 107 that only requires an exam for certification.

As things stand now, there are (3) election of rules that apply to UAS operation

  1. Regulations that apply to Hobbyists (Non-Commercial)
  2. Those operating under a granted 333 exemption (Commercial)\
  3. Those operating under FAA Rule 107 (Commercial)

None of these rules can be selectively applied but rather all requirements for either 333 or 107 must be followed exclusively.  Confusing, yes, enforced–minimally.  The FAA is extremely concerned about personal property and injury to those both on the ground and any manned aircraft.  Tremendous leaps in technology has now been moved into testing, which will allow the tracking and identification of illegal operators and their birds—we expect once enabled, ruthless penalty assessments in the multiple thousands will be levied to get, would be illegal operator’s attention.

Drones and Farming

In the Farm Community, many operators don’t see the personal operation of their UAS as a commercial activity, unfortunately, that is in fact a commercial activity if the crops or cattle enter the commercial market.  Compliance is now available by making the effort in studying and testing for the 107 exemption—understanding airspace is most critical for the Remote Pilot (RP). This is the first Spring Season for Part 107 to be in effect and it is my sincere hope that tragedy does not grow out of conflicts with aerial spray and life flight emergency operators.

While investment in Drone Technology seems like an important choice there are lots of considerations as well as liability exposure issues that must be considered.  Technology today is now available at a fraction of the cost of just a year ago.  Training is essential to realize the optimum benefit and correct diagnosis of crop and livestock issues.  With each passing day the technology gets cheaper and the capabilities grow deeper.  Last year only photogrammetry was available to visually see what was going on with crop conditions and even a trained eye could easily miss early signs of distress.  Today Infrared Photography & Lidar and a trained operator, can now spot potential problems, diagnose & prescribe the cure.

As a Commercial UAS operator it is my recommendation that you give up the thought of chasing technology and find some, like a well implemented and experienced agronomist/veterinarian that can become your partner, allowing you to grow your operation towards one of greater applied precision.

Good farming to you in this 2017 Crop Season. 

(Originally appeared Center for Rural Affairs)