The unmanned aerial system (UAS) is a new technology taking root in agriculture. Often called drones, these flying machines are more than scale-model airplanes or mini-helicopters. Equipped with sensors or cameras, they can be put to work flying over fields to perform duties from checking on crops and livestock to assessing the environmental impact of weather or an activity on the land. Drones can help farmers extract hidden on-farm knowledge.
Related: Get ready for Hay & Forage Expo
If you attend the 2016 Hay & Forage Expo June 22-23 at Boone, you can learn about drones — including the legality of owning and operating a drone. Phil Stiles, an attorney who specializes in the emerging area of drone law, will be presenting both days at the expo in central Iowa.
In addition to having broad knowledge of drone law, Stiles is general counsel for a drone services company approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. The firm serves commercial markets that deal with precision agriculture, and wind turbine and cell tower inspections.
Lecture worth a listen
Why would you want to come to the 2016 Hay & Forage Expo and listen to a lawyer talk about drones? Stiles gives six good reasons:
1. Legal aspects of owning and using a drone. For now, legal use of drones by farmers remains limited to personal enjoyment. Any use that helps the farm financially is commercial use. That’s prohibited, except with a waiver from the FAA.
Service companies operating drones are receiving waivers to use the devices on farms. However, this Section 333 Exemption or waiver process is quite cumbersome and time-consuming. Presently, every commercial drone operator must acquire a 333 Exemption to fly a drone.
Also, the operator must have a licensed pilot as the pilot in command. The operator must also have a visual observer for all flights. A drone cannot be flown within 5 miles of an airport without FAA approval. Also, don’t fly it higher than 400 feet, and you have to keep drones within your line of sight.
2. Other restrictions and requirements. The published 333 Exemption will typically establish a 400-foot operating
altitude, but in reality what really matters is the Certificate of Authorization from FAA, which will almost always limit altitude to 200 feet above ground level. An operator may request a higher ceiling for individual flights, which is highly dependent on the particular purpose of the flight and the receptivity to drone use by the area FAA office.
You may not fly within 500 feet of non-participating individuals. The operator must log all flights and file a flight report to FAA monthly. The operator must maintain maintenance logs on the aircraft. The operator must report any accidents to the FAA. The drone platform must be less than 55 pounds. The drone may be flown at maximum speed of 100 mph or 87 knots.
3. Coming soon: new rules for commercial use. Kudos to the FAA for rolling out the consumer drone registration rules first. The next step is what matters to the commercial market, including farmers. It’s called Part 107, and it will dramatically open up commercial drone operations.
Part 107, the proposed regulatory future of commercial drone operation, is expected to be released by FFA this June or July. This will create even more efficiency for the operator and lower the cost to the market.
4. Testing to be required for drone operators. The pilot in command will be called an operator and must pass a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) background test and be at least 17 years of age. Part 107 will require an unmanned aircraft airman certificate, which is slated to involve a multipart aeronautical knowledge test and will dispense with the requirement of the operator be a licensed pilot. There will also be recurring tests every 24 months. The requirement for a visual observer will go away.
Flights will be permitted in Class B, C, D and E airspace, but only with FAA air traffic control approval. Operation in Class G airspace will be allowed without needing permission from FAA.
FAA is proposing a 400- to 500-foot flight ceiling above ground level. There will likely be a fee to get a permit to operate a drone, which is still being discussed.
5. What does this mean to me? Regulations are boring. What does this mean to a commercial services provider or someone wanting to use drones for their own commercial purposes such as a farmer? One thing to understand is the definition of “commercial purpose.”
You often hear people say they can fly the drone for business use if no money changes hands. This is totally inaccurate. For example, if you are a real estate agent or farmer and fly a drone over a piece of property to assist in selling it, or if you fly your crops to collect crop health imagery, it is considered a commercial purpose due to economic benefit and is not permitted without a 333 Exemption from FAA. This is one of the reasons Part 107 is being introduced.
6. Key changes expected with new rules. The key to Part 107 is removing the “licensed pilot” requirement and allowing a non-pilot to take an airspace awareness test and get a “drone license.”
The second important element of Part 107 is elimination of the need for a visual observer. This will reduce costs if using a service provider.
There is discussion of whether the FAA will allow drones weighing less than 5 pounds to fly over crowds. It looks like the agency will approve this item, but the details are not final yet, and everyone is waiting to see what the final verdict will be.
Editor’s note: Phillip A.K. Stiles is an attorney specializing in the emerging field of drone law. He can be contacted at Stiles Law P.A., 250 International Parkway, Suite 250, Lake Mary, FL 32746. You can also go online to stileslawpa.com.
Hire a service or fly it yourself?
Do you want to hire a company to provide drone imaging services or do the work yourself? You may decide to purchase your own drone and work with a software provider to get usable data. But there are some concerns, says attorney Phil Stiles.
Flying a drone isn’t the core competency of a farmer, who may be better served working on increasing yields instead of flying drones.
Also, the technology is advancing very quickly, and the equipment purchased today may be obsolete in a year or two. This is particularly true with the sensors and cameras available. Another issue is finding the best software partner if those services are to be used by the grower.
And state and federal regulations related to drone use can be very complex and many businesses simply don’t want to deal with the laws and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Related: See you at Hay & Forage Expo