First Ag Drone Company Garners FAA Approval

Idaho farmer Robert Blair, the author of the popular TheUnmannedFarmer blog.
Idaho farmer Robert Blair, the author of the popular TheUnmannedFarmer blog.

Agriculture drone enthusiast Robert Blair (TheUnmannedFarmer.blogspot.com) has alerted us that Empire Unmanned, an outfit made up of Star, ID-based Advanced Aviation Solutions (ADAVSO), Empire Airlines (Hayden, ID) and Blair himself, has received an FAA Section 333 Exemption to fly commercial UAV missions nationwide over farmers’ fields in 2015.

“The news just came out on Monday and we’re obviously excited as all-get-out, like a kid in a candy shoppe on Christmas Day with a pocket full of money,” says Blair. “For me this is something I’ve been working on since 2006, to fly commercially, so it’s exciting. And this is not just an approval for research. We will be doing commercial, for-profit flying in 2015 under Empire Unmanned.”

While this is great news for Blair and his team, as well as the precision agriculture industry in general, there remains additional work that Empire needs to complete before takeoff. He hopes to be making his first commercial flights by March or early April.

“There is still much work to be done to be able to fly commercially and in a timely manner,” he says. “Now that we have the certainty to legally fly, we can start getting our flight teams together, get them trained on what needs to be done.”

The exemption comes with a host of conditions Empire must meet, including:

  • All flights must be managed by a two person team consisting of the primary operator and a “visual observer”. The operator must obtain a private pilots license and valid Class 3 medical certification, and the visual observer must be present and have an unobstructed line-of-sight to the UAV at all times.
  • The drones must remain below the 400 foot commercial airspace ceiling.
  • The drones cannot be flown within 500 feet of any person or structure. If operating within 500 feet of an individual, that individual must have the required level of personal protective equipment.
  • Empire will be required to file a Certificate of Authorization (COA) with FAA for each and every “area” in which they operate.

FAA did provide some “relief granted” on restrictions on Empire having manual marking or placard requirements, Blair says.

“We’re going to be working with anybody and everybody we can, from individual growers to agribusinesses to Universities,” he says. “This is going to be a test year; FAA is going to be watching us, seeing how we work in the airspace, and we’re going to be working closely with them. Hopefully we will be granted a little bit more leniency later on, possibly on the altitude and line-of-sight requirements, to help us cover more acres per day.”

Blair says Empire will be flying the SenseFly eBee Ag and will start off focusing on general crop scouting, Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) imaging and color picture imaging.

The exemption runs the full 2015 calendar year and will have to be renewed for 2016.

UPDATE: FAA has issued a press release on the exemption. Read the full press release from FAA here.

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