A recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ruling that governs the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or so-called drones in commercial agriculture is a setback for farmers and those whose research directly benefits farmers, says an Auburn University Extension specialist.

“At this time, farmers are unable to fly over crop fields or pastureland to capture pictures or video of anything they plan to sell commercially,” says John Fulton, Auburn University Extension precision agriculture specialist.

“For a majority of use on the farm and research, this means development and understanding of this technology must cease until the FAA provides updated guidelines. However, one is still able to fly as a hobbyist over their property. They can also take pictures of non-commercial items,” says Fulton.

The ruling, issued on July 3 by the FAA, states, “Farmers, ranchers and all commercial operators are prohibited from using UASs until the FAA institutes regulations for the safe integration of UASs into National Airspace. The FAA was given a deadline by Congress to allow commercial drone flights by September 2015. The Office of Inspector General released an audit this week that doubts the FAA will meet this deadline.”

“Overall, the ruling sets U.S. agriculture back and will put us behind on using this type technology to enhance the production of food and fiber,” says Fulton. “For Auburn University, we will be unable to develop the needed sensor systems and processing algorithms to better manage crops and inputs for our Alabama farmers. Essentially, we are grounded from crop research with UAS’s until they allow COAs to be established at universities for crop research. Again, this represents a setback to us and the education we can provide farmers and the ag industry on the beneficial uses of UAS’s in agriculture.”

A UAS demonstration that had been scheduled in a central Alabama farmer’s field on July 8 was cancelled shortly after the FAA ruling.

“At this time, it is difficult to know when researchers and the agriculture industry might be able to again fly over commercial crops and further develop the needed systems to support agriculture,” says Fulton.

The announcement, he says, was a surprise since the wording provided in the release differed from original interpretations that the agriculture industry had understood over the past couple of years.   

“The agriculture industry needs these types of new technologies to fine-tune the management of crops, pastures and animals. The public expects farmers to manage in a sustainable manner while being environmental stewards, and these types of technologies provide the capability to support that expectation,” says the Extension specialist.

The ruling is limiting the advancement of Alabama farmers, Fulton says. “It is a detriment to the entire ag sector. I respect the FAA and its responsibility, but agriculture is trying to use this technology in a beneficial way; not misuse it. The FAA needs to quickly provide guidelines or a new ruling. It is interesting that one has the inability to capture valuable information, at low altitudes, on private farmland.”