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Farmers hopeful about drone rules

GRAND FORKS -- New proposed rules for unmanned aerial vehicles on farms offer improvements, but no immediate fix for farmers anxious to use them routinely to help make their farming operations more efficient.

GRAND FORKS - New proposed rules for unmanned aerial vehicles on farms offer improvements, but no immediate fix for farmers anxious to use them routinely to help make their farming operations more efficient.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Feb. 16 released a set of rules that pertain to commercial UAV use. The public has 60 days to comment on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Even if approved at the fastest rate possible, some think implementation could be two or three years away.
But John Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University machine specialist with the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, said he’d be surprised if the rules aren’t in effect for the 2016 cropping season.
“It was about what I expected,” Nowatzki said. “They took off the pilot’s license requirement, which I appreciated.” Instead, the rules require testing and certification on air space and safety.
According to the proposed rules, operators must remain in visual contact with a UAV at all times. Crafts cannot fly higher than 500 feet, which is more than the 400 feet specified in the existing rule for noncommercial use.
Farm meetings in the past several months have focused on the potential benefits of UAVs in agriculture. Among the uses are employing GPS to detect areas of fields infested with weeds that might be resistant to herbicides. The theory is UAVs could be more effective than humans at scouting land and eventually could apply pesticides on a spot basis.
UAVs could collect information on crop health or development to allow for timely and accurate treatments of fertilizers, and assure food safety. Some expect them to be important for monitor- ing cattle or for evaluating crop damage for insurance claims.
Jim Reimers, farmer, pilot and UAV enthusiast from Jamestown is hoping the technology soon will be adaptable to his farm.
He said the development is moving quickly. In the 2014 growing season, it would take more than four days after landing to transfer data from aerial photography. By summertime, he thinks it might be good enough for data to be transferred to the cloud before the drone even lands after flying a mission.
Among the specific rules that could affect agriculture, a UAV must Weigh fewer than 55 pounds, stay in sight of an operator, not exceed 100 mph air speed, not fly higher than 500 feet, and operators must be at least 17 years old and pass a written aeronautic test. Operators must also be certified initially and then re-certified every two years.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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