Though the Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of changing rules governing use of unmanned aerial systems, farmers have not slowed in their quest to advance uses of the technology, now scouting fields for weeds and pests, documenting on-farm processes for agriculture advocacy and even reviewing irrigation needs.
It's because of these advancements that a 17-member Louisiana study group, headed by state Sen. Francis Thompson, Delhi, La., and including representatives from Louisiana State University's AgCenter has formed to discuss the issue and offer suggestions for future federal regulation.
Rogers Leonard, LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor for plant and soil sciences, says the FAA could release proposed rules in November on how drones can be used for commercial purposes and has requested public comment.
"Current rules are somewhat outdated and address issues with hobbyist aircraft and, on the other end of the spectrum, commercial piloted aircraft. But [unmanned aircraft system] use in agriculture really does not fit within either of those areas," Leonard said.
Leonard explained the nuances in FAA regulations regarding commercial flights, even if over private property.
"All states are facing the same issues as Louisiana. We want farmers to be able to use UAS to help make their crop production more efficient," Leonard said.
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The 17-member study group is recommending that states be given the ability to develop additional regulatory policies beyond the general FAA operation and safety guidelines, according to a statement from LSU.
"We believe that UAS guidelines for agriculture can be developed that protect privacy and ensure safety but are different from those current rules for hobbyists and commercial aircraft," Leonard said.
He noted that current FAA rules have slowed ag research progress as researchers are required to participate in an application and approval process for certificates of authorization from the FAA. COAs include documentation of the aircraft's air worthiness and the GPS coordinates for its flight location, LSU's AgCenter said.
"The LSU AgCenter is in the process of trying to get COAs for the fields at our research stations," Leonard said. "But there is a certain element of flexibility needed for research, and the present interpretation of the rules doesn't allow for that."
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Leonard said the limited research that the AgCenter and other universities across the country have conducted indicates a wide range of valuable applications for UAVs, including specific prescriptions for crop inputs based on sensor readings.
Experiments have shown that these same readings can be taken in far less time and with far less expense using sensors attached to UAVs, Leonard said.
"Precision agriculture saves costs for the farmer and can reduce fertilizer and pesticide use in the environment," he said. "We're just beginning to discover the many uses of UAS. Everyone recognizes the tremendous potential."
The AgCenter's efforts to teach farmers how to effectively use drones have also been curtailed by the FAA rules.
"It's now very difficult to set up a demonstration on how to use drones," he said. "And our farmers are asking for more information."
In all, three Louisiana state legislators are part of the study group, along with representatives from Southern University, the University of Louisiana at Monroe, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the Louisiana Agriculture Aviation Association, the Louisiana Forestry Association and the Louisiana Farm Bureau Association.
The FAA is in the process of gathering public comments from across the country, but the earliest any change in policy will be made may be more than a year away, Leonard said.
News source: LSU AgCenter