It's Almost Time to Fly

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Recent FFA proposals make possible a quicker legal launch of agriculture use of UAVs. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

The commercial unmanned aircraft era is one big step closer. In mid-February, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its long-expected proposal for regulating small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The proposed rules establish flight procedures for UAS (also known as unmanned air vehicles -- UAVs) and simplify the criteria for certifying operators.

"We, in the United States, want to capture the potential of unmanned aircraft," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. "We have been working [on] the framework for the integration of this technology into the national airspace."

Safety is the first concern, Foxx said. The proposed rules are written to keep UAVs clear of other aircraft -- these systems are limited to altitudes under 500 feet -- and to diminish the risk to people or property on the ground. The craft cannot fly directly over people except those involved in flight operations, the craft is limited to no more than 55 pounds and night operations are not permitted.

By evidence of early reactions, the proposed rules were greeted with general approval, with the exception of businesses that want to use unmanned aircraft for direct, commercial deliveries. Amazon, for example, has described a same-day delivery service by way of unmanned aircraft. The proposed rules limit UAV flights to a range within the unaided eyesight of the operator. On-board cameras, binoculars and other optics are not permitted as a means to extend the visual line of sight of the operator or visual observer.

"The proposed rule is so much better than the current process. Everybody should be cheering," says Brad Ward, chief pilot for Empire Unmanned and vice president of Advanced Aviation Solutions, out of Star, Idaho.

Ward is a founding member of the consortium of businesses that include Advanced Aviation Solutions, Empire Airlines, of Hayden, Idaho, and Idaho wheat farmer, Robert Blair. The three entities have formed Empire Unmanned to do the agricultural flying, with headquarters in Hayden. Advanced Aviation Solutions was awarded earlier this year an FAA exemption to fly unmanned aircraft for the purpose of making aerial photographic measurements and performing scouting over flights for precision agriculture. Empire hopes to begin operations this spring, but at the writing of this article, the company was awaiting a certificate of authorization to conduct operations.

The single biggest change for UAV operations is the proposal to create an aeronautical, knowledge-based testing system to certify UAV operators. Currently, operators must have a private pilot license and current medical certificate. Those hefty requirements would be eliminated in favor of a more general test and certification. UAV operators would have to re-test every 24 months.

"This greatly reduces the barrier to entry," Ward said. "It's definitely good news, and good news for farmers who want to [perform aerial scouting] themselves."

"This is a good starting place," said Robert Blair, who owns Three Canyon Farms outside Kendrick, Idaho. Blair is an internationally recognized advocate of unmanned systems for agriculture and has been working with these systems for nearly a decade. He intends to push for changes in two proposed small UAV rules: line of sight operations and the unmanned operational ceiling.

Some unmanned systems already have the capability to follow a flight path beyond the visual range of the operator. Operating at visual range inhibits the number of acres that can be scouted in a day, Blair pointed out. Similarly, the altitude restrictions build inefficiency into unmanned systems. Cameras making photographs from 500 feet cannot focus, make an image, store that image and refocus again in time to collect a high-quality data set from a field, he said.

On the ground, image processing and interpretation is perhaps the biggest challenge for unmanned crop scouting operators. "The processing time just isn't there," he said. "You can't take two hours to process [scouting data] from only 50 acres. It's got to be quicker than walking the field." Data processing software will have to improve, as well, he said. Blair is confident that innovation will come quickly now that the FAA has set out a framework for unmanned aircraft operations.

Blair is generally complimentary to the FAA. "We have a brand new industry. This is a very good, common sense approach," he said.


"We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. "We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry." The proposed Small UAS rules include:

-- Unmanned craft can weigh no more than 55 pounds, fly faster than 100 mile per hour, or higher than 500 feet.

-- Operations would be limited to daylight hours and within a visual line of sight. The FAA is asking for comments on operations beyond line of sight.

-- Operators have to be at least 17 years old, pass a knowledge test and obtain a UAV operator certificate.

-- Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas. UAV operators are responsible for avoiding other aircraft.

-- The proposed rule includes discussion of a possible "micro" classification for UAV under 4.4 pounds.

The comment period for the small UAS rules is to close by the middle of April. It may take one to two years for FAA to finalize the small UAS rule.



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