UAVs Regulations Battle Heats Up
Since Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) first burst upon the scene a few years ago, they have not only a source of wonder from the agricultural community, but something of an unknown as well. Despite plenty of interest from perspective users, UAVs have remained limited in their ability to perform any meaningful field work because commercial-oriented flights have been restricted by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules.
But this may be changing soon. In early March, a National Transportation Safety Board Judge Patrick Geraghty was asked to review a FAA judgment against Raphael Pirker, who was fined $10,000 by the FAA for “illegally flying” an UAV in a commercial capacity (Pirker claimed the unit he was flying, however, was a model airplane, not an UAV). The judge not only dismissed the fine, but ruled that the FAA policy notice regarding commercial UAV flying was not legally binding since the agency never undertook the required public notice necessary to make it an official regulation.“This policy is not meant as a substitute for any regulatory process,” said Judge Geraghty in his ruling. “As policy statements of an agency are not binding upon the general public, these policy Memoranda cannot be, and are not, found as establishing a valid rule for classifying a model aircraft as an UAS.”
According to legal experts, the FAA has a few options now. It has already filed an appeal of the ruling. In addition, FAA may consider passing some form of emergency rule to formally establish a ban on commercial UAV flying.
Until then, to paraphrase a quote uttered many times in movies and on various television shows: “Keep watching the skies . . . and courts.”
7 Myths About UAS Regulations
There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation about unmanned aircraft system (UAS) regulations. Here are some common myths and the corresponding facts, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Myth #1: The FAA doesn’t control airspace below 400 feet.
Fact: The FAA is responsible for the safety of U.S. airspace from the ground up. This misperception may originate with the idea that manned aircraft generally must stay at least 500 feet above the ground
Myth #2: Commercial UAS flights are OK if I’m over private property and stay below 400 feet.
Fact: The FAA published a Federal Register notice (PDF) in 2007 that clarified the agency’s policy: You may not fly a UAS for commercial purposes by claiming that you’re operating according to the Model Aircraft guidelines (below 400 feet, 3 miles from an airport, away from populated areas.) Commercial operations are only authorized on a case-by-case basis. A commercial flight requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval. To date, only one operation has met these criteria, using Insitu’s ScanEagle, and authorization was limited to the Arctic
Myth #3: Commercial UAS operations are a “gray area” in FAA regulations.
Fact: There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft — manned or unmanned — in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval. Private sector (civil) users can obtain an experimental airworthiness certificate to conduct research and development, training and flight demonstrations. Commercial UAS operations are limited and require the operator to have certified aircraft and pilots, as well as operating approval. To date, only two UAS models (the Scan Eagle and Aerovironment’s Puma) have been certified, and they can only fly in the Arctic. Public entities (federal, state and local governments, and public universities) may apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). The FAA reviews and approves UAS operations over densely-populated areas on a case-by-case basis.
Flying model aircraft solely for hobby or recreational reasons doesn’t require FAA approval, but hobbyists must operate according to the agency’s model aircraft guidance, which prohibits operations in populated areas.
Myth #4: There are too many commercial UAS operations for the FAA to stop.
Fact: The FAA has to prioritize its safety responsibilities, but the agency is monitoring UAS operations closely. Many times, the FAA learns about suspected commercial UAS operations via a complaint from the public or other businesses. The agency occasionally discovers such operations through the news media or postings on Internet sites. When the FAA discovers apparent unauthorized UAS operations, the agency has a number of enforcement tools available to address these operations, including a verbal warning, a warning letter, and an order to stop the operation.
Myth #5: Commercial UAS operations will be OK after September 30, 2015.
Fact: In the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation, Congress told the FAA to come up with a plan for “safe integration” of UAS by September 30, 2015. Safe integration will be incremental. The agency is still developing regulations, policies and standards that will cover a wide variety of UAS users, and expects to publish a proposed rule for small UAS – under about 55 pounds – later this year. That proposed rule will likely include provisions for commercial operations.
Myth #6: The FAA is lagging behind other countries in approving commercial drones.
Fact:This comparison is flawed. The U.S. has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world, including many general aviation aircraft that we must consider when planning UAS integration, because those same airplanes and small UAS may occupy the same airspace.
Developing all the rules and standards we need is a very complex task, and we want to make sure we get it right the first time. We want to strike the right balance of requirements for UAS to help foster growth in an emerging industry with a wide range of potential uses, but also keep all airspace users and people on the ground safe.
Myth #7: The FAA predicts as many as 30,000 drones by 2030.
Fact: That figure is outdated. It was an estimate in the FAA’s 2011 Aerospace Forecast. Since then, the agency has refined its prediction to focus on the area of greatest expected growth. The FAA currently estimates as many as 7,500 small commercial UAS may be in use by 2018, assuming the necessary regulations are in place. The number may be updated when the agency publishes the proposed rule on small UAS later this year.
Real-World UAV Experience In Agriculture
Judging by the buzz at recent farm shows and the flurry of activity at the Federal Aviation Administration, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are taking agriculture by storm. CropLife magazine talked with one savvy grower who’s really done his homework on this technology. Here, Todd Golly, owner of Golly Farms, Winnebago, MN, shares his expertise on this valuable new agronomic tool.
How did you get interested in UAVs?
Golly: Two years ago a company called Farm Intelligence, based in Mankato, MN, approached me and several other farmers in the peer group we belong to. They wanted to use our group to test their UAVs and image analysis ideas. They started flying our fields, and I saw the potential.
What were they showing you? What did you do with the information they gave you?
Golly: At first it was just photos showing the UAVs and their abilities. As we progressed, they could show us nitrogen problems, fertilizer problems and moisture issues in fields as well as how the vehicle was able to map residue, tile lines and population counts. We have about 6,000 acres of corn and soybeans. My dad’s a pilot, so we’ve always been able to view the crops from above and saw the value of it. But it’s not cost effective any more with fuel prices and insurance on a plane. The UAV gets the same results.
What costs were involved?
Golly: None to start out with Farm Intelligence’s testing. Last summer I purchased my own drone, a senseFly eBee, for about $23,000.
That sounds like an expensive unit — why did you choose it? How did you find it?
Golly: I pretty much did research on the Internet. It seems like there are hundreds of drones out there made by individuals or hobbyists. This was the most finished product I saw. It’s made by a fairly large company based in Switzerland — senseFly — that’s been in business for a while. The best feature is it’s very easy to use. When I got the eBee, I pulled it out of the box, didn’t even read the instructions and I had it flying within about 20 minutes.
There are a lot of $5,000 UAVs available, but they don’t fly themselves. They’re kind of fancy remote-controlled planes, so I don’t know why they call them drones. With the eBee, you program and upload a flight plan. To launch it, you just throw it up by hand (don’t need a catapult). It flies the mission, taking the photos all by itself — you don’t have to push a button like with some of the cheaper UAVs where you have to guess where to take a photo. The eBee figures out the wind, what direction to land in, and it will land within two feet of where you want it to. I can launch it, go in my shop, come out an hour later, and it’s just sitting where I want it to be.
How has the software worked for you?
Golly: The software is very easy to use. It automatically pulls in Google Maps and uses GPS to find your field.
What other issues have you dealt with?
Golly: The weather is definitely a challenge, especially in Minnesota. The eBee can fly in winds up to 15 to 20 mph. You really want that lower, just because it can fly doesn’t mean you’re going to get good pictures.
What will you be doing this season?
Golly: In our area we’re going to use the UAV a lot for drainage tile. In addition, by mapping residues we could variable-rate nitrogen in the near future. The eBee can also actually do elevation maps, surveying within 5 centimeters. We can probably use that information to create management zones, correlating yields and topography. We’ve also decided to start our own drone business called Leading Edge Technologies. Two of the original test farms have partnered together, and we’ve hired another person with GIS background. We’re now a distributor for the senseFly and Farm Intelligence products.
What are you finding out about how dealers are using UAVs?
Golly: A lot of the clients that we have come in, like the co-ops, may want to do a couple things. One is using the UAV to just enhance their service products. It can be a tool in an agronomist’s bag to show farmers how their hybrids are doing or what their weeds are doing. Instead of a scout going out to one or two spots in a field, the farmer will get a whole field scouted quickly. If some of our customers may want to sell the UAVs, we can make them a subdealer. They can sell them to farmers to fly themselves.
What advice would you have for farmers and dealers?
Golly: This is one of those technologies, like autosteer, that everybody is going to do eventually. It’s going to take some time to get everything ironed out, but there’s an advantage in getting in it soon to learn and get ahead of your competition. Be careful about the UAV you use. I would definitely suggest getting a higher priced one so that you actually use it, and it doesn’t sit on the shelf. I demonstrated my eBee to someone who bought a $7,000 drone. All he said afterwards was, “I just wasted $7,000.”
Your comments on UAVs at last summer’s ASA Soybean Marketing and Production College in St. Paul were very well received. What has happened since then?
Golly: We’re still just getting the business set up, but a lot of co-ops and farmers want to talk to learn more. We’ve even gotten calls from all over, including Utah, North Carolina and Arizona. We haven’t advertised, but we’ve had clients coming and wanting to know what we can do for them. So it’s been very easy so far. The response is exciting, and it’s fun to use the technology and hopefully make farmers some more money.
What challenges do you see ahead?
Golly: I think we’ll need to stay on top of what the FAA is doing. The FAA has a number of guidelines already: The drone’s weight has to be under 4 pounds, it can’t fly more than 400 feet in the air, it can’t fly near an airport and it can’t fly at night. FAA is working very rapidly to get the rules for agriculture set up. I think they’re learning as everybody else is, and they just need to regulate it so nothing bad happens — there are issues about privacy, for instance. The goal is 2015. Then you’ll have to get your UAV registered and licensed, so local governments can keep track of it, much like a four-wheeler.
Plus, there’s going to be a lot of new technology coming to keep up with. The drones themselves may stay the same but the imagers and cameras will get more advanced.
UAVs: Taking Agronomy To New Heights
Dale Cowan, a Certified Crop Advisor based in southwestern Ontario, is part of the region’s largest co-op, AGRIS Co-operative Ltd. AGRIS is a large farm input supply co-op owned by southwestern Ontario farmers. As senior agronomist, it is part of Cowan’s responsibility to provide quality agronomic and grain marketing solutions for his customers.
That means being a leader — and staying a leader — particularly when it comes to precision farming technology. AGRIS recently added a new member to their ever-expanding team — an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone.
AGRIS serves over 1,200 members, says Cowan, and over 5,000 farmers in Essex, Kent, Lambton, Middlesex and parts of Elgin County. “We offer pretty extensive precision ag services,” says Cowan, “but wanted to provide another layer of information for our customers.”
“We do the standard soil sampling that everyone does. We get yield monitor data from farmers on the combines. Not all farmers have yield monitors. Not all farmers are mapping yield and not all yield maps are particularly useful at times,” says Cowan. “Getting a look from above the crops, we know the fields are inherently variable and the crops tell us that by yielding differently.”
The drone began work in March 2013. Its first job was to take bare-ground images in the spring. Getting an aerial view, says Cowan, is another way to look at the differentials across the field. To do so, the drone takes images using either a standard digital camera or an infrared camera several times throughout the season.
“The nice thing about the drone,” says Cowan, “is that it’s totally autonomous. We can fly it in any field we want at any time — weather permitting, of course. We don’t have to access satellites or buy large tracks of imagery from other aerial platforms. It’s something we can do on a field-by-field basis.”
Without a doubt, the most difficult part of the venture has been getting the permits to fly. In Canada, in order to fly you need what’s called an SFOC — Special Flight Operations Certificate — from Transport Canada. The first step in the process is to submit an application to let Transport Canada know the intended flight path. The application should also include technical information about the unit itself. Most importantly, though, the person operating the equipment must demonstrate a working knowledge of airspace. This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of the process, as it requires extensive knowledge of the surrounding airspace and its rules and regulations.
Drones are unmanned, meaning that they fly on a predetermined flight path. This raises obvious concerns for Transport Canada, who want to know that it can be controlled at any time.
“If you’re using a remote control, then it’s not considered unmanned,” says Cowan. “If it’s unmanned, you have to have permits. The process takes anywhere from six to eight weeks
to get that permit.”
to get that permit.”
Transport Canada’s Website does show what they’re looking for in an application, but Cowan knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. He opted to taked an abbreviated ground school program so that he could better understand airspace.
“They just want you to be able to demonstrate your ability, not only to fly your craft, but to also understand the rules of the airspace that you’re operating in,” says Cowan.
The first step is to understand the difference between controlled and uncontrolled airspace, says Cowan. The five nautical miles of space surrounding an airport is considered controlled airspace.
“You can still fly there, but you have to file what is called a ‘notam’ that says that you will be in the area at this time period, at this altitude at this coordinate,” says Cowan. “It lets other people who might be in the area know that you’re in the area and they’ll stay away from it. When you’re done flying, you lift the notam with Nav Canada.”
You still have to have a working knowledge to fly outside of controlled airspace, says Cowan, who uses a guide that shows every single airstrip in Ontario, including grass strips that farmers have registered. He has to know if he’s within three to five nautical miles of any one of them, and must file a notam to let people know that he’s in the area. If he’s outside of that, in what is considered Class G airspace, then it’s open-sky policy.
“We fly at 400 feet,” says Cowan. “No other commercial airplane should ever be below 500 feet. Technically, we should never run into each other. On approach and takeoff, of course, these planes are going to be below 500 feet, so I have to know where I am relative to an airstrip.”
As expected, the first year was not without its challenges. In fact, Cowan says he learned quite a few valuable lessons. First, he learned that the drone could only be flown under the right conditions, which was sometimes a limiting factor.
“If you can’t spray, you can’t fly,” he says. “And there were an awful lot of days where you couldn’t fly.”
He also learned what factors would cause image variations. Topography, for one, creates lighter and darker spots in the images. Also, the time of day the images are taken can have an impact on quality as well. When the sun is overhead, says Cowan, you can actually pick up the shadows of plants on the ground.
The crop’s stage can also impact image quality — a lesson Cowan learned when wheat crops started to head. “When the head starts to come out it’s a totally different green color than the rest of the plant, so you have to adjust the readings on your final maps,” he says.
“We quickly learned that the field does indeed have to be bare ground, too,” says Cowan. “Any residue on the ground covered the image. Those with ground cover were unsuccessful.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson, though, is learning how to manage customer expectations. “Like anything in precision ag,when you get a map, basically what the map tells you is where you need to go and practice good basic agronomy,” says Cowan. “The drone doesn’t give you answers. It just gives you an image.”
“My advice?” he concludes. “Have a very clear idea of why you want one. Some of the things that people are looking for include formal scouting, foliar diseases and when to put chemicals on. I just look at it as another tool, and a different view. And the view from above is always more revealing than the one at ground level.”