At Willmar Ag Show, Drones All the Talk
March 8, 2016
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  • Gray areas in proposed regulations for commercial use of drones has had a black-and-white effect on a Willmar ag business.

    It’s been long predicted that drones — unmanned aerial vehicles — will have widespread agricultural applications that could provide thousands of new industry jobs and increase farm productivity.

    While not disputing that prediction, Butch Haug, owner of Haug Implement in Willmar, said the family-owned implement dealer and precision-farming service provider has suspended its use of drones — in part — because there is too much legal risk until the Federal Aviation Administration finalizes regulations.

    Instead, Haug Implement is using a real pilot flying a small plane with cameras to provide high-definition aerial imagery and mapping services that can help farmers detect such things as weeds, crop diseases and fertilizer needs. FAA regulations pertaining to drones was the topic of a seminar Tuesday at the Willmar Ag Show, which continues from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at the Willmar Civic Center. Sarah Jewell, an attorney with Reichert Wenner in St. Cloud, outlined the proposed 2015 FAA regulations, as well as the potential complications and likely court cases associated with the use of drones, during a presentation at the Ag Show.

    The FAA typically regulates flight activity 5,000 feet and up. Drones fly much lower, typically just a couple hundred feet in the air.

    But because there are safety issues with all aerial vehicles, and especially drones that are expected to increase in numbers and a variety of applications, the FAA is taking incremental steps to ensure safe airspace.

    Jewell said the FAA has “lagged behind the industry” to establish regulations but last year established a framework of regulations that include safety rules for use of smaller drones weighing 55 pounds or less.

    “The industry has pushed for this,” Jewell said, and the FAA is looking for input from the industry to create a set of workable regulations.

    A business can apply for an exemption, which includes specific rules such as keeping the drone in the line of sight and flying below 400 feet, while the FAA finalizes regulations.

    Haug Implement used drones from 2013-14 to provide aerial imagery as part of its precision farming services to clients. The legal risk, and the fact that more acreage can be covered in a shorter time with a pilot and a plane, prompted the company to stop using drones, Haug said.

    A drone “wasn’t efficient for us,” Haug said, and the company did not want to hire a lawyer in order to use one.

    Last year the company bought a small Cessna airplane equipped with cameras to record the soil and crop data provided to their clients.

    Haug said he believes drones may be a good option for individual farmers to use, but “we just don’t want to take the risk at this point.”

    The FAA rules are fairly clear when it comes to recreational use of drones, but Jewell said it’s unclear if a farmer who uses it on his own property might also be considered a commercial user.

    A recent case in which a man, known on the Internet as the “drone slayer,” shot down a neighbor’s drone in Kentucky is also presenting legal questions about privacy and use of drones.

    Privacy could also be an ag issue if animal-rights organizations use drones to fly over farms to gather information for their causes, Jewell said.

    Privacy and drones is “a big problem because we don’t have clear legal guidelines,” she said.