Still up in the air

UAV rules for agriculture continue to evolve. 

As the Federal Aviation Administration continues to review rules for unmanned aerial vehicles, anything outside of recreational use is carefully scrutinized. The future holds promise for many agriculture uses, however. The FAA recently granted a Certificate of Authorization to fly UAVs at MU’s Wurdack Research Center at Cook Station, Mo. The certification was granted after a request submitted by Missouri University of Science and Technology, St. Louis University and the University of Missouri.

“This COA broadens the utilization of Wurdack and the role of our agricultural research centers to provide research to the people,” said Dusty Walter, superintendent of Wurdack. “Technology has always played a key role in agriculture. This COA allows us to be on the leading edge of integration in management systems.”

Currently the institutions have trained pilots to fly one fixed-wing UAVs equipped with cameras and special sensors for research.

The nearly 3-pound craft with a 30-inch wingspan has the capability to fly a pre-determined flight pattern using GPS. By FAA standards, the craft cannot exceed an altitude of 400 feet and every flight has to be logged with the FAA.

Some uses for UAVs in agriculture have already been determined to work in reaching better efficiency levels on the farm. Using cameras, the craft can help with crop scouting or surveying a property.

The remote-controlled devices can fly above fields and quickly send information from attached sensors and cameras back to farmers on the ground. Farmers can download, evaluate and react to data quickly. Dense rows of crops do not obstruct views. Unlike the aging farm population, UAVs are not hampered by medical issues, muddy fields or fence rows. They overcome these barriers to zoom in and immediately send photos electronically to off-farm advisers.

MU plant scientist Bill Wiebold said UAVs can scout for insects and diseases that can’t be seen from the outside of a field. They can scan large acreages from a unique perspective without physical barriers or time restrictions. And there are other benefits. “It’s relatively easy and fun,” he said. Sensors and cameras can let farmers assess plant size, crop maturity, stand density, nutrient needs, stress and pests, among other things.

Data collected by UAVs helps farmers make plans for the current season and can be archived for future management decisions, Wiebold said.

Models suitable for agriculture cost from $1,200 to about $4,500. UAV owners can expect crashes and errors as they learn.

The Associated Press reported in December 2014 that the United States lags other countries in developing safety regulations that would permit a wide array of industries to use UAVs. The FAA bars all commercial use of drones, except by 13 companies that have been granted limited-use permits.

Europe and Canada have issued more than 1,000 permits each, and 180 Australian operators have received permission to fly. Japan has allowed UAVs to monitor and spray crops for more than a decade.

Wiebold said it’s important to follow FAA rules, but the rules may change again in 2015. “We need to be good stewards of this technology like we have been with other technologies,” he said. Current guidelines say UAVs may fly no higher than 400 feet and must remain within the operator’s line of sight.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently granted a couple more regulatory exemptions for UAV system operations, including the first for real estate photography.

The agency gave the exemptions to Douglas Trudeau with Tierra Antigua Realty in Tucson, Ariz., and Advanced Aviation Solutions in Spokane, Wash. Before these exemption approvals, the FAA had granted 12 exemptions to 11 companies in a variety of industries.

Trudeau’s exemption authorizes him to fly a Phantom 2 Vision + quadcopter to enhance academic community awareness and augment real estate listing videos. Advanced Aviation Solutions plans to use a fixed-wing eBee Ag UAVs to make photographic measurements and perform crop scouting for precision agriculture.

Both applicants also must obtain a COA that ensures the airspace for their proposed operations is safe, and that they have taken proper steps to see and avoid other aircraft. In addition, the COAs will mandate flight rules and timely reporting of any accident or incidents.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx found that the UAVs in the proposed operations do not need an FAA-issued certificate of airworthiness because they do not pose a threat to national airspace users or national security. Those findings are permitted under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

In granting the exemptions, the FAA considered the planned operating environments and required certain conditions and limitations to assure the safe operation of these UAVs in the National Airspace System. For example, operations require both a pilot and observer, the pilot must have at least an FAA Private Pilot certificate and a current medical certificate, and the UAVs must remain within line of sight at all times. 

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