Drones take flight with new FAA rules

BOONE, Iowa – Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration recently rewrote the rules regulating commercial drone operation, a positive development for those hoping to utilize drones for agricultural and other commercial purposes.

The Federal Aviation Administration will allow non-pilots to operate commercial drones starting later this year. The change opens a floodgate of opportunity in the agricultural sector, said Philip Stiles, an attorney specializing in drone law.

BOONE, Iowa — The Federal Aviation Administration rewrote the rules regulating commercial drone operation last month.

Philip Stiles is an attorney specializing in drone law and owns a drone business, Skyview HD, which uses drones for some agricultural purposes as well as real estate, wind turbine and cellphone tower inspections.

He was at the Hay and Forage Expo on June 22 and 23 talking about the changes and answering questions from the public about what the new regulations mean in real life.

What, exactly, is commercial use? If the result of the use will create a product (photo, video, imaging) either for sale, promoting a product or business or will help inform or make decisions, it's a commercial use, Stiles said. The decision-making model is often applicable to agricultural drone use, Stiles said.

The new regulations fall under Part 107. They will not go into effect until 60 days after their date of publication in the Federal Registry, which was June 21. With more than one million drones sold to consumers, the FAA decided it was time to clarify rules for the new aircraft.


The biggest change is that non-pilots now can operate drones in commercial settings. Automatically, that provision opens up a lot of possibility, Stiles said. However, unlicensed pilots will need to be 16 years old or older and take an aeronautical awareness test, which likely will cost about $150. Test locations have not been established yet, so it might take longer for new drone pilots to get into the system. Unlicensed drone pilots likely will have to take recurring tests to maintain their drone license, Stiles said. It's important to note that pilots previously okayed to operate commercial drones are not necessarily grandfathered into the Part 107 regulations and testing requirements.

Old regulations had required that there always be a visual observer along with the pilot when drones were used. That provision has gone away. One regulation that stayed, to Stiles' frustration, was that the pilot must maintain a visual line of sight with the drone.

"It's a big issue for corn," Stiles said. "You'll probably have a line of sight problem before you have a battery problem."

Other points of note that apply:

• There is a 400-foot flight ceiling.

• No flights within 500 feet of people. This means definitely no flights over people.

• Accidents must be reported. That includes lost, therefore likely crashed, drones.

• Drones can weigh no more than 55 pounds.


• They may travel up to 100 miles per hour maximum.

Part 107 didn't address microdrones, those weighing 4.4 pounds or less. The FAA chose to table provisions surrounding this subgroup and might or might not address them in the future.

As the drone market continues to develop, there are areas for improvement on all fronts.

Manufacturers will need to develop see-and-avoid technology for getting around things that might be in their way. Stiles expects geofencing to keep drones away from sensitive areas also will likely come into play. Manufacturers also will likely develop technology to limit flyaway drones and increase battery life.

For agriculture, development on the software side holds a lot of promise.

"When it comes to agriculture, the post-production guys are key," Stiles said.

As data processing and integration improves, producers will see more instant and actionable data, such as knowing the really distressed areas of a field the day of a drone flight instead of having to wait a day or more for data to be processed and returned, Stiles said.

Camera and sensor manufacturer development likely will come in the form of higher resolution images and improved multispectral, thermal, LIDAR and other sensors.


Stiles suggests commercial operators carry liability insurance in case of need. There is an online registry for hobbyists with a low cost. It's worth registering in case of an accident, Stiles said.

The future

• By 2017, drones are expected to have a $13 billion economic impact, Stiles said. That figure is projected to rise to $82 billion by 2025.

• With these new regulations in place, the FAA might get more into enforcement. "They hadn't really bothered farmers just flying their corn, but they may now because of the non-pilot allowance," Stiles said.

• As more drones come online, there is potential for a drone-based air traffic control system.

• As technology improves, farmers might be able to observe pest movement through fields and disease growth.

• There is a lot left to clarify. The FAA likely will continue making rules to regulate the drone industry as needs arise. Acting responsibly while flying drones will help prevent the industry from becoming overregulated, Stiles said.



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