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Published June 02, 2014, 09:40 AM

UAVs important issue for aerial ag applicators

Unmanned aerial vehicles could have a big role in agriculture’s future. That both intrigues and concerns aerial ag applicators.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Unmanned aerial vehicles could have a big role in agriculture’s future. That both intrigues and concerns aerial ag applicators.

The concern is that unmanned aerial vehicles will share low-level air space with aerial ag applicators, giving the latter “one more thing to worry about when they’re in the air,” says Cynthia Schreiber-Beck, executive director of the North Dakota Agricultural Aviation Association.

But UAVs also hold promise for aerial ag applicators, who wonder if unmanned aerial vehicles will give them further opportunities to serve farmers.

UAVs, sometimes known as drones, have many potential uses in agriculture, including monitoring crops. They have possible uses in other industries, too, and could create 100,000 new jobs and $82 billion in economic activity from 2015 to 2025, according to the UAV industry’s leading trade group.

With that in mind, Congress in 2012 ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with guidelines on how UAVs can be incorporated safely into the nation’s skies by 2015. Late last year, the FAA selected Grand Forks, N.D., as one of six sites nationally where UAVs will be tested to meet that goal.

Reports are circulating that the FAA might issue guidelines for small UAVs (ones weighing 55 pounds or less) by November this year.

In the meantime, the FAA says using UAVs for commercial purposes remains illegal. That longstanding position came into question in March, when a federal judge ruled that FAA’s drone rules are just guidelines and not legally enforceable. The FAA is appealing and FAA’s position apparently remains valid until and unless the judge’s ruling is upheld.

Brian Rau is a Medina, N.D., aerial ag applicator. He’s a past president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association and currently is chairman of its government relations committee.

Rau says the FAA has consistently told his organization that the commercial use of UAVs is illegal. He also says it’s his understanding that farm liability insurance might not protect a farmer if something goes wrong when the producer is using a UAV.

‘Evolution in agriculture’

In any case, both UAV advocates and aerial ag applicators say they share the same goal.

“The UAV guys want to work for agriculture. Our guys want to work for agriculture. Now we just have to find a way to work together safely,” Rau says.

David Dvorak has the same attitude. He’s CEO of Field of View, a Grand Forks company that works with UAVs and precision agriculture.

He says he’s talked with a number of aerial ag applicators and found “them a little wary, and rightly so” of UAVs.

On one hand, “They want to figure out if there are ways they can use this (UAVs) in their business,” he says. “It’s just the evolution in agriculture.”

On the other, “They have concern about safety, and it’s a valid concern,” he says.

“At the end of the day, it’s about safety,” Dvorak says. “It’s important (for the UAV industry) to understand how general aviation operates.”

“No one wants to see a situation where an autonomous vehicle is responsible for the death or injury of a human. We just have to take the proper steps to make the chances of that happening as minimal as possible,” Dvorak says.