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  • Clint Dunaway

Benefits of Drone Use in Agriculture

Updated: Feb 25


The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) in commercial farming is increasingly profitable. UAVs are used in pest control, monitor crop health, create plans specific to a field. Drones help farmers get the most productivity from every square inch of a farm. When it comes to UAVs, your imagination can go pretty wild in terms of what is possible.


Drone technology, can make farmers more efficient by helping them locate problem spots in vast fields or ranch-lands. Increased efficiency could mean lower costs for consumers and less impact on the environment if farmers used fewer chemicals because drones showed them exactly where to spray. Drones can carry different tools, including high-resolution cameras, infrared sensors and thermal sensors. Ground-penetrating radar could even measure soil conditions.


Compared to traditional fixed wing aircraft, UAVs can fly lower, slower, and hover in place for extended periods of time, all of which enhance the precision, speed, and safety of pesticide application. In fact, studies suggest that pesticide application by a UAV could be up to five times faster than traditional fixed-wing aircraft.


Aerial Pesticide- The fact that UAVs can operate significantly closer to crops without causing damage, due in part to the lower thrust exerted by a sUAS relative to larger manned aircraft, reduces the concern for drift.


These benefits may also result in sUASs supplanting uses that have traditionally required hand-application for certain pesticides, reaping farmworker safety benefits currently addressed by the Worker Protection Standards. UAVs limit the risk of pesticides drifting to non-target areas, potentially poisoning non-resistant neighboring crops or agricultural workers. Drift can be caused by pesticides being released at improper altitudes, at inappropriate ambient temperatures, or with incorrect droplet sizes. EPA mandates specific applicator boom length and nozzle size to mitigate drift of certain pesticides.


Improve Crop Health- Agriculture drones can look at massive fields of crops to scout out where crops are too wet, too dry, too diseased or too infested with pests.

Essentially, you make a drone map of your field and request the according analysis you need. And the goal of these analyses is to “scan” the field and determine the location and the percentage of problem areas.


There are, for example, analyses that can show you how to spot weed and diseases, identify pest-infested areas and even help you count plants and trees. Besides being drastically faster than traditional measures, drone data analyses offer exact numbers and percentages together with the precise location of healthy and problematic areas.


Topography of Fields- Allows farmers and agronomists to create an overview of their fields. To let them mark points of interest on their field (such as ponds, or barns) and calculate how large certain areas on their fields are.


II. CHALLENGES TO IMPLEMENTING A UAV PROGRAM


Old FAA Laws

There are rules and limitations, among others, on operational hours and require registration for UAVs. Some, but not all, of these limitations may be waived by the FAA Administrator. The technology of UASs is moving forward so rapidly that the laws and rules and regulations have created, the regulations surrounding aerial pesticide application have not yet been updated to accommodate the specific benefits and limitations of UAS use. As a result, a patchwork of exemptions, waivers, and label modifications is currently required for a commercial entity to aerially apply pesticides via UAS.


Burdensome Application Process

Many of the FAA regulations on aerial pesticide application have not been updated in almost half a century and fail to accommodate advancements in technology, especially UAVs.However, companies can apply for waivers and exemptions from the FAA to use UAVs in a way that will benefit farming.


Part 107 Waivers

The FAA Administrator has the authority to waive some of the limitations placed on UAV use, so long as the Administrator determines that “the proposed [sUAS] operation can safely be conducted under the terms of [the] waiver.”Anyone may request a waiver, but their request must include a “complete description of the proposed operation and justification that establishes that the operation can safely be conducted under the terms of the waiver.”

The FAA says that it “will strive to review and issue decisions on waiver and authorization requests within 90 days”.


Part 11 Exemptions

The FAA can exempt an individual from any FAA regulation by submitting a request for a Part 11 exemption. This pathway, however, is far more burdensome than the Part 107 waiver process as it requires publication in the Federal Register and opportunity for public comment. The FAA requires that the petition be submitted at least 120 days before the petitioner anticipates the exemption is required. Additionally, Part 11 exemptions are typically only valid for 2 years, as opposed to 4 years under a Part 107 waiver. The FAA does, however, provide guidance to individuals seeking a Part 11 exemption and a searchable database called the Automated Exemption System (AES) is accessible to the public.


333 Exemptions

As of July 14, 2017, 18 individuals and companies have received a waiver of the § 107.35 limitation to multiple drone operation. DroneSeed’s success demonstrates that the FAA is open to the use of drones as pesticide applicators; however, the current complex approval process serves as a significant barrier to entry for potential competitors.

sUASs as a possibly safer and cheaper substitute for traditional fixed- wing or helicopter/rotocopter aerial applicators. In the meantime, a combination of Section 333 exemptions, Part 107 Waivers, Section 11 exemptions–depending on the size of the UAS–are a viable, albeit expensive and time-consuming, alternative to permit limited use and testing of sUASs for aerial pesticide application in the near future.

There are currently three exemption and waiver processes that a UAS operator would need to navigate to aerially dispense pesticides, depending on the type of UAS used. For UASs over 55 lbs., a Section 333 Exemption is required. This application is more open-ended, has fewer limitations, but is more expensive and takes longer to obtain. For sUASs, a Part 107 waiver may be used. These waivers are cheaper and faster to obtain, but are more limited in the restrictions that may be waived. Finally, Part 11 Exemptions permit relief from a vast array of FAA regulations; however, this process requires full notice and comment for each applicant and requires navigating significantly more regulations. An overview of each of these three processes follows next along with an example of a UAS aerial pesticide applicator that has successfully navigated these regulatory hurdles.

Recently, Yamaha received a Section 333 Exemption to use its UAS, the RMAX, in aerial pesticide application. Because the RMAX weighs in excess of 55 lbs., it is ineligible for the Section 107 sUAS rules and must use the Section 333 Exemption.


III. VALE LA PENA- IT’S WORTH THE COST

Having an agricultural UAS drone program far outweighs the cost and hassle of setting it up. Let the Dunaway Law Group remove the stress and confusion of setting up a drone program. Please contact us at office@dunawaylg.com or phone at 480-389-6529.

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