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45,000 farmers get drones, Some likely to apply to FAA for proper certificates to use UAS in farm operation

Two drones, a quadcopter in the foreground and a fixed-wing drone in the background, were on display at the RDO Equipment booth at the Precision Ag Summit Tuesday at the North Dakota Farmers Union headquarters, in Jamestown. Drones used in production agriculture must be operated by a licensed pilot, according to FAA regulations. (Keith Norman/Forum News Service)

JAMESTOWN -- An estimated 45,000 farmers across the United States received a drone or unmanned aerial system for Christmas, according to Kris Poulson, vice president of agriculture for Sentera.

Sentera is a Minneapolis-based company that develops and markets the imaging technology used by drones to photograph farm fields and other resources.

Poulson was part of a panel on UAS technology that spoke at the Precision Ag Summit this week at the North Dakota Farmers Union headquarters in Jamestown.

Some of those farmers will probably be making an application to the Federal Aviation Administration for the proper certificates to use drones in a farm operation, according to Paul Gunderson, director of the Dakota Precision Ag Center. This is called a Section 333 Exemption.

“When you file a 333 request, it defines how you intend to use the technology,” Gunderson said. “The application can be 12 to 20 pages depending on how the narratives are filled out.”

The FAA website says a hobbyist flying a small drone of less than a half-pound is not required to have an exemption or a pilot’s license. Anyone using a drone in his or her business, such as a farmer using the drone to scout fields, is required to have the Section 333 Exemption and follow the guidelines included in the exemption.

These requirements include flying at less than 500-feet altitude in most situations, limiting speeds to no more than 100 mph, and always keeping the drone within visual sight of the pilot and observer on the ground.

“That is usually a quarter to a third of a mile,” Gunderson said.

Gunderson said the exemption still requires the operator of the drone to be a licensed pilot with a current FAA medical certification, although those standards could change in the future.

There are also ethical concerns in using a drone, he said.

“The pilot is obligated to not operate a vehicle over land they don’t own,” Gunderson said. “Don’t operate near local, state or national parks and never operate near a fire or an accident unless it’s on your own property.”

Nate Dorsey, product specialist for RDO Equipment, a drone retailer, said more UAS vehicles are being sold to construction companies than agriculture at this time.

“They were initially designed for construction,” he said. “They can do things like inspect bridges or even estimate the amount of gravel in a pit.”

Dorsey said cost is still a factor in limiting the use of drones in agriculture. The Sensefly Ebee, a fixed-wing drone sold by RDO, costs about $30,000 equipped with sensors and the computer software necessary to work with the data. This drone can be used to map farm fields with the maps integrated to other precision farm systems that map crop yields.

“The benefit is you can quickly obtain the images and execute a plan,” he said.

The images may indicate portions of the field that require additional fertilizer or treatment with herbicides or insecticides. If images are available immediately after the drone flight, management decisions can be made almost immediately, Dorsey said.

John Nowatzki, moderator of the panel at the Precision Ag Summit and ag machine system specialist for North Dakota State University, said the uses and rules associated with drones is still changing.

“I’m not sure where the technology will end up,” he said. “But I haven’t talked to any farmer who had used drones and not thought there was a benefit.”

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