December 16, 2014

For unmanned aerial systems on the farm, it’s a few steps forward…and another step backward

By Kelli Polatty, Entira Associate

Drones have found their way onto holiday wish lists this year, with quadcopters, hexcopters, and the like topping hot gadget lineups. With ongoing talks about impending regulations for commercial use, people are growing antsy to get their drones in the air—and farmers and agribusiness professionals are no exception. The economic impact for agriculture alone is projected to be in the billions.

So what’s the holdup? It’s still not legal to operate a drone, technically referred to as an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV, for commercial purposes, but there are signs of progress toward that goal—albeit very … slow … progress. On Wednesday, December 10, the Federal Aviation Administration granted approval to four companies to fly unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for commercial purposes. One of the companies is Trimble Navigation, which now has regulatory exemption to use UAS to capture still photographs for precision agriculture purposes. These new exemptions will open the door for select companies to use drones commercially, including aerial surveying, construction site monitoring, and oil rig inspections. Until now, most of the exemptions granted have been to a handful of film and video companies.

Despite these new exemptions, widespread regulations are a distant glimmer on the horizon. Regulators have been working on a proposal for using commercial UAS under 55 pounds, and initially thought the preliminary proposal could be released as early as this year with a final deadline of September 2015. But at a mid-December congressional hearing, FAA officials projected 2017 as a more realistic timetable for when they believe they can have regulations completed and approved. There could be more special provisions released sooner—similar to the exemptions granted this week—but it’s unknown when the FAA might loosen restrictions that affect farm use. It’s expected the arduous approval process will suffer continued delays because of the complexity of the issue and the required public comment period, which will undoubtedly be spirited.

Still, the approvals announced last week signify one more step forward in the quest to put this technology to use on the farm. Entira will have it front and center on our radar, because all of us in the agribusiness industry must use this time to plan for the eventual availability of the technology.