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FAA loosens restrictions for farm industry operations

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — New rules announced June 21 for the operation of small, low-level UAVs will help farmers, ranchers and others involved in area agriculture, a North Dakota State University extension expert says.

“I think it will have a very positive impact,” says John Nowatzki, an NDSU agricultural machine systems specialist who has studied UAVs and unmanned aerial systems.

The long-awaited rules unveiled by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority will remove what has been a major barrier for the use of small, low-levels in agriculture.

The FAA says, beginning in August, flight will be allowed in agriculture for UAVs that weigh less than 55 pounds, fly up to 400 feet high and travel up to 100 miles per hour, provided the flights are within sight of an operator and not over people.

UAVs will need special lighting to fly at night and must stay at least 5 miles away from airports. Operators must be at least 16 and have a remote pilot certificate.

The use of UAVs nationwide could create $82 billion in annual economic growth and as many as 100,000 jobs by 2025, according to some estimates.

UAV flights can be useful in checking crops and will be especially appealing, at least initially, to agronomists, Nowatzki says.

UAVs also will have a role in livestock operations, he says.

“This is an important milestone on the path to fully integrating our national airspace with unmanned aircraft flying alongside manned aircraft,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., says. “The FAA is taking steps to safely allow basic UAS operations that will lead to economic benefits in a variety of industries, from agriculture and transportation to retail sales. It is a particularly exciting day for several entrepreneurs in North Dakota’s high-tech industry, who are prepared to lead the way to safe and profitable UAS activities.”

By themselves, the new rules won’t lead immediately to widespread use of UAVs in agriculture, Nowatzki and others say.

Work still needs to be done with computer software and cameras that the UAVs and their operators will utilize. More operator education is important, too, and NDSU extension will provide it, he says.

“But this was an important step,” he says of the new FAA rules.