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Louisiana agriculture officials ask FAA for new rules for drones

News Release Distributed 09/26/14

BATON ROUGE, La. – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in the process of changing rules and regulations regarding the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), which are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones.

These changes are of concern to the agricultural interests in Louisiana, including the LSU AgCenter, because the agriculture community has embraced this new technology and found many valuable uses for it, said Rogers Leonard, LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor for plant and soil sciences.

He said the FAA will release proposed rules in November, several years later than originally projected, on how drones can be used for commercial purposes and has requested public comment. A 17-member Louisiana study group, headed by state Sen. Francis Thompson, Delhi, and including representatives from the LSU AgCenter, has responded to this call and put forth several suggestions, Leonard said.

“Current rules are somewhat outdated and address issues with hobbyist aircraft and, on the other end of the spectrum, commercial piloted aircraft. But UAS use in agriculture really does not fit within either of those areas,” Leonard said.

So far, the typical UAS being developed for agriculture has a wing span of about 3 feet and is equipped with a camera or sensing device to monitor crop fields much faster than a farmer can on foot or in a tractor or truck.

For example, if a farmer can fly a camera over a field to check on the progress of flood irrigation water flow, then he can determine exactly when to turn off the pump. This simple operation could save water resources, reduce energy costs of pumping, and more effectively manage nutrients in the field, Leonard said.

Under current rules, however, if a farmer uses a drone for this purpose, he would be in violation of recent interpretations of the law because he does not have the right to use a UAS commercially above his fields, even if the fields are all his private property.

“All states are facing the same issues as Louisiana. We want farmers to be able to use UAS to help make their crop production more efficient,” Leonard said.

The Louisiana study group is recommending that states be given the ability to develop additional regulatory policies beyond the general FAA operation and safety guidelines.

“We believe that UAS guidelines for agriculture can be developed that protect privacy and ensure safety but are different from those current rules for hobbyists and commercial aircraft,” Leonard said.

The current FAA rules also have slowed research progress on UAS use in agriculture.

Leonard said researchers are required to participate in an elaborate application and approval process for certificates of authorization (COA’s) from the FAA, which include documentation of the aircraft’s air worthiness and the GPS coordinates for its flight location.

“The LSU AgCenter is in the process of trying to get COAs for the fields at our research stations,” Leonard said. “But there is a certain element of flexibility needed for research, and the present interpretation of the rules doesn’t allow for that.”

Leonard said the limited research that the AgCenter and other universities across the country have conducted indicates a wide range of valuable applications for UAS’s.

One of the most valuable is in the area of precision agriculture. Prescriptions for crop inputs can be applied to fields based on sensor readings taken from plants in fields and then analyzed with computer software. This information can be collected with sensors mounted on tractors or even full-size aircraft. Experiments have shown that these same readings can be taken in far less time and with far less expense using sensors attached to UAS’s, Leonard said.

“Precision agriculture saves costs for the farmer and can reduce fertilizer and pesticide use in the environment,” he said. “We’re just beginning to discover the many uses of UAS. Everyone recognizes the tremendous potential.”

The AgCenter’s efforts to teach farmers how to effectively use drones have also been curtailed by the FAA rules.

“It’s now very difficult to set up a demonstration on how to use drones,” he said. “And our farmers are asking for more information.”

In addition to Sen. Thompson, two other state legislators are part of the study group and are helping resolve the issues with the FAA, said Hampton Grunewald, AgCenter governmental relations coordinator. They are Sen. Bret Allain, Franklin, and Rep. Andy Anders, Vidalia.

Other organizations represented include Southern University, the University of Louisiana at Monroe, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the Louisiana Agriculture Aviation Association, the Louisiana Forestry Association and the Louisiana Farm Bureau Association.

The FAA is in the process of gathering public comments from across the country, but the earliest any change in policy will be made may be more than a year away, Leonard said.

Linda Foster Benedict

Last Updated: 10/1/2014 9:36:27 AM

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