Farmers Seek Balance in Drone Regulations

As the Federal Aviation Administration drafts final regulations for the use of unmanned aircraft in agriculture, farmers are seeking to protect privacy and reap the benefits of a new tool for precision agriculture.

The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation supported two bills in the 2015 General Assembly that prohibit any government agency or organization from using drones to survey property except during the execution of a search warrant or when an inspection warrant has been issued. The bills also permit drone use for agricultural research and development, along with other exemptions. Both bills recently were signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

“Our members felt unauthorized aerial surveillance of their farms and forests by government agencies would be an invasion of privacy,” said Trey Davis, VFBF assistant director of governmental relations. “This legislation essentially puts some checks and balances into that use of drones, while encouraging our research institutions to find new ways to help farmers improve yields and protect the environment.”

Using unmanned aircraft to take pictures of large farm fields or use temperature and other sensors holds great promise. Virginia Tech has an entire research center, the Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems, dedicated to technology like drones. Sampling microbe data above a farm field is just one of the technologies being studied.

“Precision agriculture is all about using technology to fine-tune our existing crop production techniques and even develop new ones,” Davis said. “One of (farmers’) goals is to apply only as many nutrients as are necessary for a healthy crop. Another is to improve yields across large amounts of acreage. Data from drones could be very useful in accomplishing both goals.”

Draft rules being considered by the FAA include requiring operators to obtain an unmanned aircraft system operator certificate, stay away from bystanders and fly only during the day. They would limit flying speed to 100 mph and altitude to 500 feet. In addition, the aircraft could weigh no more than 55 pounds and would have to remain within the operator’s line of sight.

“This is cutting-edge technology. Commercial drone systems are already being demonstrated to Virginia farmers,” Davis said. “We need balanced regulations to help this new agriculture tool thrive while protecting the privacy of all Virginians.”

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