FAA appears cautious on drone use over farmland

Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (Dec. 16, 2014) — If you’ve been eagerly waiting to assign some farming duties to winged, computer-run machines in the sky, sit back and relax.
It doesn’t look like it’s going to get easier to fly commercial drones over farmland anytime soon.
The Federal Aviation Administration is still working on proposed rules for the commercial use of small, unmanned aerial vehicles, due for release by the end of the month, said Alison Duquette, an agency spokesperson.
After that, a comment period would occur and a final set of rules would be designed based on those comments.
Duquette said the FAA is not commenting on a recent Wall Street Journal report claiming the agency is working on regulations that require commercial drone operators to obtain a license, fly only in daylight and keep the drone within sight of the operator, among other restrictions.
The explosion of drones, both in commercial and hobbyist spheres, has led to increased worry that unregulated unmanned aircraft could make airspace increasingly dangerous.
Critics say the restrictions would severely hamper a fledgling industry that’s surging even before it’s lawfully permitted to take off. criticized the FAA last week, saying they may take their ambitious drone package delivery research abroad if federal guidelines are too restrictive.
Large electronics companies, such as GoPro, have announced plans to create new lines of camera-equipped drones.
Agriculture technology companies also have plans to sell or rent drones that could quickly survey hundreds of acres of crops, searching for signs of distress and other concerns typically assigned to scouts.
Technology field days and other agriculture events have been held throughout the Delmarva area over the last year to showcase the potential of drone technology on American agriculture.
Mike Johnson, vice president of aviation operations at Northern Virginia OmniVersatile Solutions, said he’s eyeing that market specifically.
His company sells drone systems, among other services, though it’s been limited somewhat to foreign, law enforcement and military clients due to FAA regulations.
OmniVersatile is one of more than 100 companies that have submitted requests to the FAA for exemptions from current commercial drone restrictions while the FAA hammers out its final rules.
Johnson said he believes the FAA will likely require operators to obtain a license.
But drone hobbyists won’t be regulated, which he said he disagrees with.
“As a pilot myself I understand why they want to mitigate risk,” he said. “But at the same time, you got all the hobbyists flying in the same space we’re flying.
“What can I say? It seems to be inconsistent.”
Until recently, the FAA granted exemptions to only a select few applicants, mostly from the film industry.
But the agency announced on Dec. 10 it granted another batch to companies across a swath of industries because their activities did not represent a risk to national airspace security.
“The FAA’s first priority is the safety of our nation’s aviation system,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “Today’s exemptions are a step toward integrating [unmanned aircraft systems] operations safely.”