Rules governing the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in agriculture — or any other commercial industry — remain as clear as a Wisconsin blizzard.
However, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently issued a decision that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules that apply to manned aircraft also apply to unmanned aircraft or drones.
The ruling pertained to the 2011 FAA case against Ralph Pirker, who used a UAV to take aerial images of the Univ. of Virginia campus. Pirker was fined $10,000, but an administrative law judge for the NTSB struck down the fine on the grounds that the FAA didn’t have rules in place to regulate model aircraft.
The FAA appealed and the NTSB reversed the judge’s ruling, but it remains to be seen if Pirker violated the current regulations for UAVs, which allow operators to fly below 400 feet for non-commercial purposes.
So what impact will this decision have on the emergence of UAVs in agriculture?
Probably not much in the short-term, says John F. Nowatzki, Agricultural Machine Systems Specialist with North Dakota State Univ., because of where farmers are primarily operating UAVS.
“Safety is more easily managed in rural areas than any other areas,” he says. “This ruling will not impact farmers already using UAV's. They are regularly working with machinery that requires operators to be extremely cognizant of safety.”
Dealers are equally vigilant with the equipment safety and Nowatzki doesn’t foresee any backlash for companies selling UAV technology to farmers, based on the decision. The fact that UAV operators in ag are typically flying spacious fields and not crowded campuses certainly reduces the risk of injury or property damage.
But it doesn’t diminish the need to stress the importance of safety A precision specialist at a Midwest equipment dealership that began selling UAVs, told me that it’s easy for customers to get caught up in the “sex appeal” of the equipment, one reason why he favors a certification process for operators.
“We actually had a cease and desist letter served to us at a farm show and had to explain to an FAA rep our qualifications and our purpose for flying UAVs,” the specialist says. “They are still a toy to many people, but they can be a tool if used properly and safely.”
They can also be dangerous if someone doesn’t know what they’re doing, and dealers don’t want to sell a UAV to a novice who will end up doing something they shouldn’t because they were overconfident at the controls.
We’ll soon be turning the calendar to 2015 and the FAA is supposed to have rules governing commercial UAV operation, training and safety by September. There is plenty of skepticism as to whether the agency will meet that deadline, and concern that restrictions will ultimately squeeze any commercial value out of UAVs.
As the precision specialist in the Midwest laments, “The technology will probably get regulated to the point where it won’t be a business worth being in.”