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Drone presentation at farm show looks at legality, possibility

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Also at the show

The Power and Pitfalls of

Big Data:

Agriculture’s Wild, Wild West

Speaker: RJ Karney, Director of Congressional Relations, American Farm Bureau Federation

Representatives from the American Farm Bureau Federation RJ Karney spoke on Big Data in agriculture, and what producers should be aware of before signing contracts with companies to use the data that can be gathered from their farm. In such, many farmers did not read their contracts fully and were not aware of the rights to their data. In a survey done by the AFBF to gauge members’ understanding of data rights, 82 percent of respondents said they did not know what a company intended to do with their farm data, and 76 percent said they were concerned this information could be used for “market-sensitive commercial activities.” Another 78 percent said they were concerned about their data being shared with regulatory agencies.

For more information about big data and farmers’ rights, visit http://www.fb.org/index.php?action=issues.bigdata.

For farmers, ranchers and drone experts alike, the future of unmanned aerial vehicles is up in the air.

That’s the conclusion speaker Rory Paul came to during the Colorado Farm Show’s first-of-its-kind presentation on drones at Island Grove Regional Park in Greeley, Colo., on Wednesday.

Paul, CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics in St. Louis, Mo., told the audience of 76, the drone industry is so new that many people don’t realize how much there is to it. The term drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, includes everything from gliders to military aircraft.



For the ag industry, the topic of how to use drones is only about three seasons old, Paul said.

“We do not own the airspace above our property. But what we do have is this: we have airspace usage rights.

One of the biggest barriers will be addressing the legalities of drone usage. A host of complicated Federal Aviation Administration rules mean most ag producers won’t be able to expressly use drones as part of their business. They’ll have to use them as a hobby. As soon as any money is generated from the use of drones, it no longer counts under the hobbyist category and becomes commercial.



“You can fly as a hobbyist, with the same safety risks, but you can’t do it commercially,” Paul said. “It’s exactly the same.”

In 2013, the FAA initially encouraged farmers to use drones to monitor their crops. Then last year, officials decided that constituted commercial activity.

“(The FAA) didn’t gauge the response they were going to get from the agricultural sector,” Paul said.

Unforeseen problems, such as drones colliding with crop dusters, drove the FAA to make the reversal, he said. The new rule for model aircraft now includes a clause that lists “Determining whether crops need to be watered that are grown as part of (a) commercial farming operation” as an unacceptable use for hobbies or recreation.

Paul said those found in violation of this FAA policy can be reprimanded or fined, but the conversation about drone legality doesn’t stop there.

“There is a constitutional issue,” he said. “The Fifth Amendment says we have our property rights, and the federal government, or any government entity, can’t withhold our property from us without compensation. … We do not own the airspace above our property. But what we do have is this: we have airspace usage rights.”

Once the red tape is cut, there are two main types of drones — rotary wing and fixed wing — that producers can consider. Rotary-wing drones can be best used agriculturally for small-acreage data gathering. The battery power on these drones only will allow for 15-25 minutes of flight, during which time about 25 acres can be photographed.

Fixed-wing drones can fly for anywhere between 1-2 hours, depending on weather conditions, and can cover roughly 1,000 acres, Paul said.

However, no matter how much ground the fixed-wing drone can cover, the distance of flight is limited by the FAA to how far the operator can see, or the visual line of sight.

One of the biggest concerns for not just farmers, but also many opponents of drones, is privacy.

On the farming and ranching side, agriculturalists are concerned that drones can be flown over their land and information acquired can be used against them. Drones, however, aren’t the only thing producers should be worried about in that arena, Paul said. No matter what regulations limit or allow drone usage, Paul said there is nothing stopping someone from affixing a camera to an FAA-approved aircraft and taking aerial photos of a farmer’s land.

He added that privacy concerns could set back progress toward drone viability back by a decade. In addition, after a drone was crashed onto the lawn of the White House on Jan. 26, Paul said concerns about drone regulation will be at an all-time high.

Despite the speed bumps, Paul said it is important for those in the agricultural sector to familiarize themselves with the technology now, before it becomes the norm and they are left behind. Drones are regularly being used in agriculture internationally, he said, showing the audience a picture of a large drone used to gather crop data in Uruguay, one of three owned by Agronegocios Del Plata.

“Here we have a developing nation using an advanced nation’s technology already, and we are lagging behind,” he said.

And even though he works for a company producing drones, he said he realizes it is unrealistic to think drones as they currently exist in the U.S. can solve every problem with gathering ag data.

For large farms and large-scale data collection, he said, these drones may not be a viable option because of short battery life and even shorter range of eyesight.

“I think that the smaller the field, the more applicable UAVs are,” he said. ❖


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