Ask almost any farmer if he wants more government regulations impacting his farming operation and the answer will be an emphatic, “NO!” Currently most major farm groups are engaged in a massive PR and lobbying campaign against proposed regulations covering water and renewable energy from the EPA and food safety by the FDA. These burdensome regulations not only impose more costs on a farming operation, but can also restrict innovation and implementation of new technology that will increase food production and safety or, in some cases, even help protect the environment. There is, however, one area where there is virtually no government regulation and this, too, is slowing innovation and impacting production, safety, and the environmental. In this area, farmers are asking for regulations and getting no response from Washington.
One of the hottest topics in agriculture currently is UAVs or drones. This is a $13 billion industry, which is forecast to grow to over an $80 billon industry by 2025. It is an industry that has tremendous implications for agriculture. It has been estimated that there are 10 times more applications for drones for agriculture than for any other sector. Dr. Kevin Price, with Roboflight, recently presented some of his cutting edge research with drones at an Indiana Farm Bureau seminar. Using his remote sensing devices with drones, he can evaluate the health of a crop, spot disease and insect damage, evaluate nitrogen levels, map spray drift, measure water and moisture levels, and a wide variety of other issues — all with a drone controlled with an iPad. His firm is even working on a program that will estimate yields with over 90% accuracy.
But, before you run out and buy a drone, you may want to know the government says flying a drone for commercial use is illegal. The FAA, the government agency charged with regulating the nation’s airspace, has made this pronouncement and has even tried to fine people who use drones for commercial use. The problem is the agency has no rules that cover the commercial use of UAVs. When the FAA has tried to levy fines, courts have tossed out the charges saying the agency cannot enforce rules it has not made.
In the 1980s, the FAA published guidelines for the flying of model remote control airplanes. Since then the agency has not produced any regulations that cover drones. In 2012, Congress directed the FAA to develop such regulations but, to date, the agency has nothing in the way of proposed rules for the commercial use of drones. The new rules were mandated by Congress to be in force by September of 2015, but so far the FAA has been silent on what these new rules will look like or when they will be proposed.
The lack of any clear direction from the FAA is keeping innovation and investment in the UAV industry from moving forward. While research is continuing, anyone implementing this new technology is flying into a legal minefield. In addition to the lack of regulations on use of drones, the issues of privacy and trespassing are also a gray area. If you fly over a neighbor’s field is that trespassing? If you take photos of a neighbor’s field is that an invasion of privacy? Attorney Todd Janzen told the Farm Bureau meeting that the FAA is totally unequipped to deal with these questions and there are few legal precedents to guide producers. Dean Payne, with Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance, said the lack of government and legal guidelines has made it impossible for the insurance industry to craft any coverage for the use of drones.
So, while some government agencies are busy implementing regulations that don’t need to be implemented, other agencies are sitting on their hands and not providing any guidance in areas when such guidance would help the industry grow and the technology be implemented.
By Gary Truitt