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The new rules for drone aircraft proposed last month are a good step forward, but the Federal Aviation Administration needs to tweak them for the benefit of agriculture.

The proposed rules released Feb. 15 by the FAA were termed “surprisingly flexible and permissive” by Matt Waite, founder of the drone journalism lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The rules will allow use of drones as big as 55 pounds. In marked contrast to current rules, they could be operated by someone without a pilot license.

Drones can be used to take digital images that can be analyzed to show with more precision where crops need more or less water and where chemicals should be applied to control pests.

The unmanned aircraft also might be used to take leaf samples in an area of the field showing stress.

One problem with the proposed rules is that they require the operator to remain within sight of the drone. Robert Blair, the first farmer to receive a permit allowing him to use drones on his fields in Idaho said the rule would require him to fly 10 separate drone missions to cover his 1,300-acre field.

Another significant problem is the restricting use of drones at altitudes under 500 feet.

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Both rules would provide safety benefits in urban areas. But in rural areas, they are too restrictive. Perhaps the FAA could loosen those restrictions with a long-term agricultural permit for specific farm fields.

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Drones already have proved useful for various tasks. At a "Sunday With a Scientist” demonstration at Morrill Hall on the same day the proposed regulations were released, UNL scientists demonstrated how the drones are used to collect water samples.

“Drones can fly to lakes, ponds, oceans and other places that might be hard or dangerous to reach. They can fly very close to the water and get a sample of 20 milliliters of water and see if it’s toxic,” said Sabastian Elbaum, UNL professor of computer science and engineering.

Last spring, students and producers saw a drone demonstrated over fields at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture at Curtis, Neb. The Southeast Nebraska Corngrowers saw a demonstration.

“Drones have become as ubiquitous as John Deere tractors” at farm shows across the country, National Public Radio reported recently.

It may be a year or two before the rules become final, but it won’t be long until drones are common in the air space above the miles upon miles of corn and soybeans that rustle in Nebraska’s summer breeze.

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