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Unmanned aerial vehicles like this DJI Inspire 1 displayed by Randy Braun during the Consumer Electronics Show in January offer a range of new features and may soon be flown commercially once new FAA rules are in place
<p>Unmanned aerial vehicles, like this DJI Inspire 1 displayed by Randy Braun during the Consumer Electronics Show in January, offer a range of new features and may soon be flown commercially, once new FAA rules are in place.</p>

Drones closer to legal use

Federal Aviation Administration issues proposed new rules for use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

In mid-February, the Federal Aviation Administration issued proposed rules for the use of unmanned aircraft systems, opening up the proposal for a 60-day comment period that expires in April. The rules are for UAS weighing fewer than 55 pounds.

The new rules were met with a wide range of initial interpretations, but on the whole there’s good news for agriculture. The regulations only require a user to take a written test once every two years, operate during the day, keep the aircraft below 500 feet and operate at less than 100 mph. And the machine must remain in the operator’s line of sight.

One unmanned aerial vehicle maker — PrecisionHawk — issued a statement from Christopher Dean, the firm’s chief executive officer: “We are thrilled to hear FAA Administrator Michael Huerta say that the FAA and [Department of Transportation] are committed to building the most flexible regulatory system in the world.”

Dean’s statement notes that the company will address some topics in its public comments, including the issues of maintaining visual line of sight and day-only operations. PrecisionHawk makes a wing-type UAV that flies a preprogrammed circuit for a field, and in larger fields would not always remain in line of sight. However, Dean says his company is pleased with the majority of the proposed rules.

Another issue is that these small aircraft will not need an airworthiness certificate. Dean says that was unexpected, but “this will allow the industry to grow exponentially in a short period of time.”

The 500-foot altitude is an effective height for orthomosaic stitching, which allows for creation of very precise maps. Flexible approach In an FAA press statement, Huerta says: “We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules. We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”

Under the rules, the person actually flying the UAS would be an “operator.” That operator would have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate. To maintain certification, the operator would have to pass the FAA knowledge test every 24 months. A small-UAS operator would not need any further private pilot certifications (including a private pilot’s license or medical rating).

There are concerns about limits regarding operating above people. In one press report, at least one legal expert opined that the rules would prohibit a farm user from running a UAV over another farmer operating a machine in the same field. The final rules, with public comment, may change that interpretation.

This is a solid move toward commercializing use of UAVs for agriculture and other industries. The main complaints about the rules when first announced were limits that prevent use of the vehicles for delivering parcels — as proposed by Google and Amazon.

The proposal is 194 pages, and you can check out a summary of key issues in a fact sheet put together by FAA.

To comment on the proposed rules, go to and search for “unmanned aerial vehicles.”

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