Farm owners still weighing pros, cons of drones

Staff Writer

(Feb. 10, 2015) Susie Hance-Wells’ nephew had purchased a drone with a camera, and was flying it on her Calvert County farm, surveying the property last fall.
Hance-Wells, the county’s Farm Bureau president, said she was taken by the beauty of the images the drone captured.
Unfortunately, that feeling quickly changed, she said.
“The videos were wonderful. The clarity was incredible and gave beautiful pictures of the farm. And it really never occurred to me it would be a problem until he got a little too close for comfort,” she said, remembering she was standing inside her home. “He flew it right to our window and was looking through the window, and I thought, ‘This was a little eerie.’”
Drones, a hot ticket item on Christmas lists in 2014, have become an increasingly popular toy among hobbyists.
And while the agricultural community eagerly awaits definitive regulations from the federal government over their use for commercial purposes, some farmers are already concerned about the ways in which drones could make life harder for the farmer rather than easier.
Hance-Wells, for instance, said her experience with her nephew’s drone got her thinking about the ways they could be used to violate personal privacy.
She was one of a group of Southern Maryland farming representatives who met with the state legislature’s Southern Maryland delegation last month, requesting it consider legislation that would restrict the flight of drones over private property without the owner’s consent.
It would make it much harder, for instance, for environmental activists to fly camera-toting drones over farms to take aerial footage or even closer footage, Hance-Wells said, such as animals or inside barns.
St. Mary’s County Farm Bureau President Jamie Raley initially brought the issue and the prospect of legislation to Southern Maryland Farm Bureaus and the delegation.
Several bills addressing the issue have gone before the legislature over the last several years but were dropped or didn’t make it through for various reasons, he said.
In the forefront of some farmers’ minds, Raley and others said, is the well-known case between the Waterkeepers Alliance, farmer Alan Hudson and Perdue Farms.
Representatives of the Waterkeeper Alliance flew a plane over Hudson’s Eastern Shore farm in 2009 in search of evidence that manure on his property was harming the health of a nearby river.
Drones would make that easier.
“The groups are using technology to further their ends,” Raley said. “We traditionally have always been very conscious about personal property rights in the the farming community ... and we don’t want to have open season for flying over the land.”
How feasible is legislation like that?
Fairly feasible, said Paul Goeringer, a research associate and Extension legal specialist with the University of Maryland’s Agriculture Law Education Initiative, which advises family farms on legal issues.
Similar legislation has passed in states such as Texas, he said, which restricts drone owners from flying them over private property up to, say, 500 feet.
The legislation could spark first amendment issues.
“The problem’s going to be enforcement of it,” Goeringer said. “It’s going to make it more costly for environmental groups to fly over your property. To me, that’s all it does in the end.”
It’s a start, Hance-Wells said.
“You’ve got good and bad with this device,” she said. “You don’t want to give the impression that you have something to hide. … But we’re very concerned over the privacy issue and the trespassing issue.”