After a four-year wait, on February 15, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced the long anticipated proposed rule to allow the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, (drones) for commercial purposes. Other countries including Canada and some countries in Europe already allow commercial drone use.
Benefits of Commercial Drone Use
One of the major uses of drones expected under this proposal would be for scouting crops in the field though photos or imaging gathered by the drone. This use of drones will dramatically improve the ability to scout crops more efficiently and improve the data obtained from scouting now being done on the ground. This ability to scout the growing crops by drones is thought to be the final development necessary for agriculture to achieve large productivity gains possible from the analysis of real-time data and the application of that analysis to precision agriculture systems. Farmers and agribusinesses supplying inputs to farmers — seeds, fertilizer and crop protection products — will be major users and beneficiaries of this new technology.
Realtors and buyers and sellers of real estate will likely benefit from this technology allowing for an added, more complete look at real estate from the air.
Farms and ranches are also likely to use drones to more fully observe livestock on their extensive properties.
The crop insurance industry might also find information obtained through the use of drones useful in determining or verifying crop insurance claims.
Drone Requirements and Regulations
The proposed rule requires that a drone weigh less than 55 pounds, with a maximum air speed of 100 miles per hour, flying at an altitude of no more than 500 feet. The operator must be at least 17 years old, pass an FAA knowledge test, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, and be certified by the FAA to operate the drone. Although the drone operators will have to be certified, the drones themselves will not require an airworthiness certification.
The operator must operate only one drone at a time, flying it only within visual line of sight, and only during daylight hours. The rules also prohibit drone flights above people who are not involved in the flight itself.
Next Steps on Drone Use
The public comment period for the proposed rule is 60 days. Many comments raising safety and privacy concerns are expected to be submitted to the FAA. Although it is a simple, straightforward proposal, it’s likely to take some time for the FAA to evaluate comments and issue a final rule. Late this year or in 2016 is a realistic expectation for issuance of a final rule. The FAA has stated that it is considering developing permissive drone rules in the future, including those for micro drones — or drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds.