Mention the word “drone” and most people think of our nation’s military activities in the Middle East. However, over the last few years, unmanned aircraft is finding its way into new civilian applications. Small drones, which are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS), when equipped with sophisticated cameras, can be invaluable surveying tools.
Agriculture is one such industry that is particularly suited to benefit from drone technology. The rise of precision agriculture and prescriptive planting places a high premium on accurate, real-time data. Farmers and crop consultants have typically relied on satellite technology or images gathered by airplanes to assist their precision agriculture needs. UAVs equipped with multi-spectral cameras can deliver images that are much more precise than satellite data at a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft flight.
Many in agriculture are taking advantage of this technology. Farmers and crop consultants are using drones to monitor crop health, survey irrigation systems, and spot-check problem areas in fields that can often be missed by on-the-ground scouting. However, these UAV operators have been operating in what can most generously be described as a legal “gray area.” Since 2007, FAA has taken the position that any commercial use of unmanned aircraft is unlawful.
In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. One of the provisions of this Act required FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system by September 30, 2015. The agency is taking an incremental approach to this mandate, and will certainly miss Congress’ deadline.
FAA’s first proposed rule on unmanned aircraft, “Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” was published in the Federal Register on February 23, 2015. The proposed rule would govern how sUAS (the agency’s preferred terminology) could be operated and the certification requirements for operators. Major components of the proposed rule include:
- Operation of sUAS. FAA proposes allowing the operation of sUAS flown within the visual line-of-sight of an operator. Operations must be conducted while maintaining a constant visual line-of-sight. Visual observers may be used to assist the operator in maintaining a visual line-of-sight, so long as the operator is capable of seeing the sUAS. sUAS may be operated with an altitude ceiling of 500 feet in unrestricted (Class G) airspace and with Air Traffic Control approval in some classes of restricted airspace.
- Certification of sUAS operators. sUAS flights must be operated by a certified airman. FAA is proposing the creation of a sUAS rating for its existing airman certification program. Pilot licenses will not be required for sUAS operators. Certification will primarily be based on passage of an initial aeronautical knowledge exam. Operators will need to renew their certification every two years.
- Registration and display of registration markings. FAA’s proposal requires sUAS to be registered with the agency. FAA also proposes to require sUAS to display their registration number.
- Exemptions for airworthiness certificates. Section 332(b)(2) of the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act enables FAA to consider whether the airworthiness certification requirements applicable to manned aircraft should also apply to sUAS. Based on the relatively lower risks that accompany sUAS, the agency decided to exempt sUAS from the airworthiness certification requirement.
- Micro UAS. The agency is requesting comments on whether it should create a subclass of sUAS known as Micro UAS. Micro UAS would weigh less than 4.4 pounds and be subject to less stringent requirements for operating conditions and operator certification. Many agricultural drones would fall under this Micro UAS category.
To assist in understanding this rule and the potential implications for agricultural drone use, OFW has prepared a complimentary memorandum. This memorandum provides a comprehensive analysis of FAA’s proposed rule and how it will impact agricultural applications of UAV technology.