Thursday, November 07, 2013

Farmers and journalism programs waiting for FAA to release regulations for use of drones

In science-fiction movies there's often a scene in which something crashes on a farm, and the curious farmer goes to investigate, only to get blasted by an alien, who then journeys to the city in its quest to conquer the earth. In "Men in Black" the alien does this while wearing the farmer's skin like a suit. More UFOs could soon be seen flying around farms—but working the land. Drones or “unmanned aerial systems” are typically used by the military but are also increasingly used as farm tools, where they "can cover large tracts of land quickly and produce centimeter-accurate crop data to help farmers plan for irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide application, and harvest with precision," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. "Tests are also underway on drones that spray crops. More precise pesticide applications could produce environmental benefits in addition to boosting productivity." (Shutterstock photo by Stephanie Bidouze) 

The only obstacle is that "the Federal Aviation Administration does not allow unmanned flight for commercial purposes," Agri-Pulse notes. "Congress, however, has ordered the FAA to incorporate unmanned aerial systems into U.S. airspace by Sept. 30, 2015, and pending litigation could force action sooner." Rory Paul, CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics in St. Louis, told Agri-Pulse that if the rules for model aircraft were applied to unmanned systems, “they would jump into the market with two feet,” because “timely aerial data acquisition is the missing piece of precision agriculture.”

"The FAA does have a special certification process for 'public agencies,' including police and fire departments and universities," Agri-Pulse notes. The University of Missouri received a $25,000 grant last year that it plans to use to fund research for the construction and modification of drones for its Missouri Drone Journalism Program. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which held a drone journalism conference last week, has a Drone Journalism Lab. "But the university drones are temporarily on hold, after the FAA requested in July that they cease all outdoor flight until they obtain a formal certificate of authorization. FAA says it will gather information to use in developing unmanned system regulations for six test sites the agency plans to designate by the end of the year." The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said "a favorable regulatory framework from the FAA would allow makers of drones to add $13.6 billion and 34,000 new jobs to the economy." Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but is available for a free trial by clicking here. (Nebraska drone taking a water sample)

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