Understanding the Opportunities and Legal Limitations
While drone technology has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of the agricultural industry, farmers need to understand the legal limitations of drone use. Everyone in the agriculture industry should be taking stock of drones to determine whether new technology might help increase crop yields, keep tabs on cattle or even stop thieves.
Earlier this year Reece Wilkinson was flying his drone above his family’s citrus farm when he spotted a suspicious vehicle in the orchard. Wilkinson repositioned his drone to get a closer look. As he suspected, the vehicle belonged to a thief who was helping himself to the family’s citrus crop. A few minutes later, local law enforcement converged on the orchard, and the perpetrator was arrested with 500 pounds of grapefruit in the trunk of his car. Since then, Wilkinson has successfully used his drone to stop numerous crop thieves and saved the family farm from the loss of thousands of pounds of fruit.
Wilkinson’s use of a drone to protect the family crop is just one way farmers are deploying drones to increase crop yields. Companies like Aerial Agriculture, DroneDeploy and senseFly are integrating cutting-edge-photo and -thermal technology with off-the-shelf consumer drones to provide farmers with a new, affordable set of aerial tools. Farmers can use drones to survey crops, pin-point disease, and apply fertilizers and pesticides with greater accuracy.
While drone technology has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of the agricultural industry, farmers need to understand the legal limitations of drone use.
Currently, all drone flights fall into one of six legal categories:
Indoor Flights: Not regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration in any manner.
Flights Under the Recreation/Hobby Drone Law: Flights must be for hobby or recreational purposes and cannot support a non-hobby or commercial purpose. Hobby or recreational drone flights must take place within the operator’s line-of-sight; must be in accordance with accepted community-safety practices, and the operator must notify any airports within five miles of the operation.
Flights Under the Part 107 Rule (became effective Aug. 29, 2016): Allows drone operations including commercial drone flights that conform with limitations set forth in the new rule.
Flights Under a Section 333 Exemption: Allows commercial drone flights, but operator must have a conventional pilot license. Flight restrictions can vary from applicant to applicant depending on intended use.
Flights Under a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization: Drone operations by public entities.
Flights Under Traditional Aircraft Rules: Drone and pilot must meet the requirements of traditional manned aircraft.
Drones operated under categories two through five weighing more than 0.55 pounds must also be registered online with the FAA. The registration process takes about five minutes and costs $5.
Before Aug. 29, 2016, farmers who wanted to use drones as part of their farming operations were required to obtain a section 333 exemption. Even with the exemption, the farmer still had to employ someone with a traditional pilot license to operate the drone. The pilot license requirement made drone use in agriculture and other industries impractical. The FAA’s new drone regulations change everything.
New Drone Rules
New drone rules (14 CFR 107) became effective on Aug. 29, 2016. Under the new regulations, a farmer can take an FAA-administered drone test (called the Aeronautical Knowledge Test) and obtain a remote pilot certificate. The test consists of 60 objective multiple-choice questions. Correctly answering 70 percent of the questions will result in a passing score. Unlike a traditional pilot license, there is no training-flight-time requirement for a drone pilot certificate. The Transportation Security Administration will vet successful test takers before authorizing issuance of the final certificate.
With a drone pilot certificate in hand, a farmer can deploy a drone as part of his or her farming operations as long as he or she follows the operating requirements of the new rule. The new requirements might appear intimidating and a little cumbersome at first glance. For farmers, the entire rule can be summarized into a single general guideline: Under the new Part 107 rule, farmers who have a Remote Pilot Certificate can, after a simple preflight inspection, operate a drone during the day over their farm property at an altitude of 400 feet or less as long as the drone remains within their line of sight during the operation.
The vast majority of drone operations over rural farm property fall within the summary guideline above. However, farmers should still take some time to familiarize themselves with some of the finer points of the new rule. Many of the major provisions of the 14 CFR 107 are summarized below:
Accident Reporting: Any drone related accident that causes serious injury or loss of consciousness to a person or over $500 in property damage (other than to the drone) must be reported to the FAA within 10 calendar days. (14 CFR 107.9)
Operating from a Moving Vehicle: Operation of a drone from a moving vehicle is permitted only over sparsely populated areas with some limitations. (14 CFR 107.25)
Alcohol or Drugs: A drone may not be operated while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and a drone may not be used to transport illegal drugs. (14 CFR 107.27)
Daylight Operations: A drone may not be operated at night. (14 CFR 107.29)
Visual Line of Sight: A drone must be operated within the line of sight of the pilot or a spotter who is in communication with the pilot. (14 CFR 107.31-33)
Hazardous Material: A drone may not be used to transport hazardous materials as defined by section 5103 of the federal hazardous materials transportation law. (14 CFR 107.36)
Right of Way: Drones must yield the right of way (and stay well clear of) any other aircraft. (14 CFR 107.37)
Operation Over People: A drone may not be operated over a person unless the person is participating in the flight or the person is under a protective structure or in a stationary vehicle. (14 CFR 107.39)
Airspace Requirements: A drone may be operated in Class G airspace without permission, but the pilot must obtain permission from Air Traffic Control to operate in Class B, Class C, Class D or Class E airspace. (14 CFR 107.41) Note: Almost all farm property in rural areas will be in Class G airspace that generally extends to 700 feet above ground. Free online maps such as AirMap can be used to help identify the different airspace classes. Official aeronautical maps are available on the FAA website.
Preflight Inspection: Before fight, the drone pilot must perform a basic preflight inspection to make sure his controller is linked with the drone and the operation can be carried out in a safe manner. (14 CFR 107.49)
Max Speed: A drone may not be operated at speeds over 100 mph. (14 CFR 107.51)
Max Altitude: A drone may not be operated at a height over 400 feet above ground level unless within 400 feet of a structure, in which case the drone may not be flown over 400 feet above the top of the structure. (14 CFR 107.51)
One unique aspect of the new drone rules is a provision allowing pilots to request waivers to some of the requirements. The sections that can be waived are listed in rule 107.205 and include the sections banning nighttime operations, operations outside visual line of sight and operations over people.
Drones will not be replacing tractors anytime soon, but, at a cost of $500 to $1,500, a properly utilized drone could quickly pay for itself on the farm. Everyone in the agriculture industry should be taking stock of drones to determine whether new technology might help increase crop yields, keep tabs on the cattle, or, in the case of Reece Wilkinson, stop grapefruit thieves.
Matthew Brown, JD, is an engineer, licensed attorney, drone enthusiast, and founder and creator of USDroneLaw.com.