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5 things to know about new drone rules

PrecisionHawk offers this infographic that summarizes the new FAA drone rules
<p>PrecisionHawk offers this infographic that summarizes the new FAA drone rules.</p>
FAA publishes new rules that hit the 'sweet spot' for agriculture UAV use

This week the Federal Aviation Administration has released its new rules for the operation for unmanned aerial vehicles, and while you may be reading some grousing by some industries over this first pass on operation; for agriculture the rules are basically nothing but good news.

We talked with Thomas Haun, executive vice president, PrecisionHawk, who offers some insight into those rules, and we picked up comments from Jamie Nafziger at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, check out these keys to the new rules. And if you want more information on what FAA calls Part 107, check out this summary.

1. No pilot's license needed, no second observer either.

The original Section 333 waiver that allowed you to legally operate an unmanned aerial vehicle required that the operator be a licensed pilot, and have an observer on hand too. "To me this rule is tailored to the ag industry," says Haun. "All you need to do is pass a knowledge test for a remote pilot airman certificate."

Haun explains that the test is administered in thousands of places around the country, and users of UAV's will have to take the test in person. "If you're already a licensed pilot you don't have to take the test in person, you can certify online. If you're getting the certificate, you need to go to a test location," he says. He adds that you can find a lot of resources for taking that test at Haun likens the certificate test to taking your driver's test.

2. Watch your weight.

The new rules require that your drone weigh in under 55 pounds - though you can get waivers for larger machines. This main new rule limits weight to that size - which in  many cases is a pretty good size airship for agriculture.

Haun calls these machines "the smalls" and notes that "the smalls do most of the remote sensing jobs on farms now. They're the ones that carry the cameras, they're the ones that do the plant counts, or measure the health of vegetation. The drones farmers are using are the small drones.

3. No one around - really

The rule does not allow you to operate that drone above a crowd, without a special waiver. As Haun notes farms don't have a lot of people around. And it's allowed to fly that drone above "affiliated persons." As Haun says, "everyone on the farm is an affiliated person."

Remote locations with small drones are just what agriculture is about. And this new rule, which will go into effect later in August, opens the skies to producers. Dorsey & Whitney's Nafziger notes that this new rule "will likely accelerate the already booming drone market" adding that the FAA's rules "significantly ease the burden on businesses which want to make basic commercial uses of [drones]. If someone wants to fly a drone over their farm for use in precision agriculture, these new rules make doing that much easier."

4. You can hire work done.

In the past, use of drone on the farm by an operator without a 333 exemption from the FAA was essentially illegal (though a lot of people did it). And charging for drone services without that exemption was also illegal. With these new rules those restrictions go away. Nafziger explains: "I’ve had clients ask me if they can hire their nieces or nephews to fly drones for their business and have had to tell them no, unless their niece or nephew is a pilot.  Now, under the new rules, I can say “yes,” so long as their niece or nephew is at least 16 and gets a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating (and follows the new UAS rules, of course).  So, we should have lots more eligible operators over the next few months."

Haun adds that your consultant can now add this service to their scouting too. The ag drone business, which as been characterized as the potentially hottest area for drone use should be taking off (pun intended).

5. Keep the drone in sight, and under 400 feet

The new rules still require you to keep that drone in sight, and you must operate at 400 feet or below. PrecisionHawk, maker of fixed wing drones, can fly farther than you can see, but Haun says this restriction isn't a problem. "Even in a large field, like a quarter section, you can keep your eyes on a fixed wing drone," he says.

The company recently announced a software partnership with multi-rotor drone maker DJI, and Haun says that was in part due to the rules that FAA was working on. Either way, keeping the machine in sight should not limit your ability to capture data. The rule specifically notes that you can't use your on-the-ground display as your "line of sight" tool. "Your eyes must be on the drone," Haun says.

That 400-foot operating height is good news. Section 333 waivers often started at 200 feet, requiring users to apply every time to operate higher. FAA has relaxed this with Part 107, offering you more flexibility. And Haun says at that height you can capture the field in a single flight, which is valuable too.

BONUS: No drone swarms please.

One interesting prohibition in the rule is that a single operator cannot operate more than one drone without a waiver. We recently featured an item about a special drone swarm Intel operated, which was a great light show, but why would you want to run more than one drone at a time?

"You might want to do that if you were using the drone to apply something in your field, perhaps as a sprayer," Haun says.

He notes that Yamaha, which is an investor in PrecisionHawk has a sprayer drone (which is FAA approved) that could be used in tandem with other machines, so two or three could cover a field much more quickly. FAA will allow waivers to the one-operator-one-drone rule, but for now it's not generally allowed in the new rules.

As Haun notes, these new rules "hit the sweet spot" for agriculture.

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