Drone freedoms bring responsibility (Editorial)

(July 26, 2016) When the Federal Aviation Administration announced new rules designed specifically for drones weighing less than 55 pounds, the agriculture industry applauded as it should speed up development of applications to improve crop production. 
Numerous companies, researchers and cooperating farmers have already been hard at work building stores of data and refining programs to detect disease and pest damage sooner, estimate crop yields and assist in many other tasks. 
The long-anticipated rules released last month mean commercial operators can fly drones without special permission.
Until the new rules came out June 21, commercial operators have had to apply for a waiver from rules that govern manned aircraft, a process that can be time-consuming and expensive.
Since 2014 the FAA has granted more than 6,100 waivers and another 7,600 are waiting for approval. Many more small companies have been using drones without FAA permission, say industry officials.
Unless those operators make a serious mistake that brings them to the FAA’s attention, there’s not a lot the agency can do to track them down.
The new rules would provide an easier way for those businesses to operate legally.
Under the new rules, operators would register their drones online, pass an aviation knowledge exam for drone pilots at an FAA-approved testing center and then they’re good to go.
That’s a big change since operators currently have to have a manned aircraft pilot’s license.
The agency is also working on an array of other safety rules and standards to further broaden the circumstances under which drones can be flown.
In April, FAA officials said they are working on regulations that would permit some commercial drones to fly over people and crowds based on recommendations from an industry advisory committee.
Industry and government officials describe commercial drones as the biggest game-changing technology in aviation since the advent of the jet engine.
“This is a watershed moment in how advanced technology can improve lives,” Brendan Schulman, a vice president at DJI, the world’s largest civilian drone-maker told the Associated Press after the rules’ release.
But there needs to remain a level of caution among any type of drone operators, as more on-the-ground pilots take to the skies.
It’s a tool with tremendous potential for agriculture to produce more food on less land.
But like any tool, the potential for misuse exists. Just as the door opens wider for use in farming, activist groups will have an easier path to capture aerial photos and video, which we have already seen used in court against a farmer.
Wider use of unmanned aircrafts on farms will also add yet another component in the farming industry’s unending efforts to educate the agriculturally ignorant.
Surely, some group somewhere will find fault in how farmers use drones and design a campaign to end it.
Employed as a business tool and factored into the farm’s balance sheet, farmers are sure to take using the aircraft’s service seriously with little if any reason to operate outside of the law.
Our worry is in the carelessness of those operators who take the drone’s use for granted, do with it as they see fit without regard for others’ safety or personal property.
It would be a shame if too many incidents resulting from irresponsibility led to a tightening up of the rules, taking back from all small unmanned aircraft operators, especially those serving agriculture, this freedom to operate.