Pirker Reversal, FAA Bungling: Where We Are Today With Drones In Ag

Kansas farmer Robert Blair, the author of the popular TheUnmannedFarmer blog. Simply put, when TheUnmannedFarmer speaks on drones in agriculture, people tend to shut-up and listen.

Robert Blair, the man behind the popular drone-centric blog (TheUnmannedFarmer.blogspot.com) is well-known in precision agriculture circles after becoming the first U.S. farmer to adopt drone technology on his 1500 acre Idaho farm back in 2006.

A few days after the reversal of the now-infamous Pirker decision by an NTSB administrative judge, we connected with Blair to get a handle on just how much this hasty decision by regulators will set back the industry.

Matthew J. Grassi: What did you first think of this week’s Pirker reversal upon learning of it?

Robert Blair: “Well first and foremost, the Pirker decision is a major setback, not only for agriculture but for the commercialization of small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in the U.S. Regarding agriculture, on June 18 the FAA came out with an interpretation that narrowly defined what the difference is between hobby and commercial aircraft and that was a major setback to agriculture itself, because under hobby rules I can fly any type of hobby airframe over my fields and take any images I want. However, what that interpretation did is if I use that information for making management decisions, it throws me into commercial and I am illegal. My backyard garden – I’m fine, my field crops – I am illegal. But how far is the FAA willing to go? I think they’re getting into the weeds on personal property rights. With all of that being said, the Pirker decision is probably going to be appealed.”

MJG: What are some of the unintended consequences of this decision that you foresee being problematic going forward?

RB: “It certainly has unintended consequences, because under this ruling pretty much anything that flies in the air is now an aircraft. So are they going to start regulating archery – an arrow is intended to fly – since anything that is able to fly now falls under FAA jurisdication? Hypothetically speaking we don’t expect that to be the case, but these are some of the things that, by the FAA not having commercial rules in place, it is just adding to a lot of misunderstanding and frustration, especially in trying to use UAVs for commercial use. It’s really frustrating, and by FAA not having commercial rules that make sense in my opinion its creating more of a safety issue in the airspace than having clearly defined rules so people can use them.”

MJG: In my opinion what seemed to be one of FAA’s major sticking points with Pirker was the manner in which he operated his drone on the UVA campus that day – which they deemed ‘reckless’ and, if some of the witness statements from that day detailing narrow misses and an alleged collision with a student are indeed true, I would have to agree with them – yet how can FAA equate the circumstances of how Pirker operated with a farmer in Illinois using a drone on his own field, within his line-of-sight and under 400 feet in a low population, rural area far from any restricted airspace?

RB: “FAA has supreme authority of the national airspace and basically what they say goes. They’ve had that authority from the beginning, since their creation. There is a 1946 case, U.S. vs. Causby which Causby won, so we technically should be able to fly anything on our own property as long as we stay below 83 feet, that was the determination in that case. What FAA is doing with their determinations now is they’ve narrowly defined what is commercial with the June 18 determination, and now they’ve closed the university-commercial loophole because the university must own the research produced. So if a Simplot or some other commercial entity was paying for UAV research before, they cannot do that anymore. And the research also must support aeronautical research, and according to FAA using an off-the-shelf UAS to conduct agriculture research does not qualify as aeronautical research, so this could actually affect some of the COAs that are out there waiting to be approved. The big thing here is that it basically disqualifies any day-to-day operations of agricultural extension research and services, so anything the Land Grant institutions could possibly be doing with a UAS to get information on the ground to growers is no longer permitted.”

MJG: Where do you feel the disconnect lies between regulators and drone enthusiasts in getting commercial operations underway in a timely fashion?

RB: “We have to look at all of this legislatively and consider what’s going on in Washington DC. One of the reasons the government has not made commercial UAS a priority yet is they have not allocated the funding to be able to do it. They have a $10 million budget for commercial UAS; to them it’s just not a priority. If FAA can show Congress that they are doing things to make this happen, then I can see Congress coming back and saying ‘OK, if you want to make this a priority than we can help you too’, but I think it has to come from FAA. Or Congress needs to go to FAA and say this WILL be a priority, and that has yet to happen. Congress simply doesn’t understand the potential that there is with UAVs in agriculture.”

MJG: You attended a UAS Commercialization Conference this week in D.C. as one of the few agriculture folks in attendance. Tell me a little bit about your experience there.

RB: “In many of the presentations that I saw, pretty much every single one of them that was listing potential commercial markets – agriculture and precision agriculture were listed. That’s a great thing, because they realize the potential of this technology for our industry, that we could really utilize this technology. The problem is they don’t understand it. One of the presenters pointed to three or four industries that he said need real-time information from drones. An audience member then asked, ‘well what about precision agriculture?’ His response was: No, they don’t really need real-time information. But this is what’s happening, the commercial UAV companies have not reached out to agriculture to understand what our needs really are for both product and legislation, and the other thing they have not done is bring somebody on board as a consultant to understand what is needed. The aviation industry does not know what we need – I already knew that but the conference just reaffirmed it in my mind.”

MJG: How are all of these developments affecting the technology itself? Is it setting back the industry?

RB: “It is stymying the understanding of this technology in agriculture even further. In ag, the research really has not yet been done to quantify to growers and agronomists what the economic and agronomic benefits of the technology are. By the time we are finally able to fly it’s going to take a few years to get the information out to farmers and agronomists on what the technology can actually do for them.”

MJG: How about an update on the commercialization timeline. How far off are we from being able to deploy drones in agriculture?

RB: “Well, they claim they (FAA) will have the small UAS rules out by end of year but you will not see operating rules until at least 2016, possibly 2017. Again, the issue there is that agriculture never had a seat at the table. From 2008 to present that’s one of things I’ve been trying to do is get agriculture a seat in the rule making process. Not only did the UAV industry and researchers target ag as one of the largest commercial UAV segments from the beginning, but so did FAA. So if that’s the case then why is agriculture not able to help shape the rules for our own industry? If the aviation companies and the pilot associations don’t know what we need and want, how can they convey that to the FAA?”

MJG: What’s your view on some of the early indications that commercial use will be restricted to under 400 feet and a commercial pilot’s license be required?

RB: “At the conference during my presentation I told the room ‘Agriculture needs to be able to fly at 1,000 feet’, and this is the reason. Forty percent of the U.S. land mass is farmland. If you are flying at 400 feet at 30 mph you will never ever be able to cover that farmland. You just cannot do it. If FAA is truly concerned about safety – and one of their points is ‘we are going to have all of these UAVS in the airspace’ – if you keep the rules where they are at currently then yes, you are going to have a hell of a lot of UAVs in the air and people to deal with to be able to cover those acres. If we can raise the ceiling and get some bigger UAVs that can fly a little faster and cover more ground and fly out of line-of-sight, now instead of having to deal with 5-10 people to cover acres you only have to deal with one.”

MJG: What was the initial reaction to your 1,000 feet proposal?

RB: “I’d say it was about 75% positive and maybe 25% were skeptical or thought it was a losing battle, but the 1,000 feet is not an arbitrary number. Based on my research the sweet spot for the current small UAVs on the market is between 900 and 1200 feet above-ground-level. At 400 feet with a small fixed wing it’s all I can do to cover my 1500 acres of farmland in one day. Now, 2012 USDA census figures say there are 163.5 million acres of corn and soybeans being grown. So if I can only cover 1500 acres in a day, just for corn and soybean acres it would take 109,000 days for me to cover those acres. Theoretically, that’s just corn and soybeans, which account for 50% off all of the cropland harvested in the U.S., so you’ve got to double that number. It would take 218,000 days to cover all of the cropland in the U.S. You can’t do it. Four hundred feet is not feasible. Line-of-sight is not feasible. Limiting us to 30 minute flights is not feasible. How the heck are we going to do our job?”

MJG: So what’s next for TheUnmannedFarmer?

SB: “I am part of a group, Advanced Aviation Solutions (ADAVSO), who along with Empire Unmanned has applied for a Section 333 FAA exemption to fly commercially. ADAVSO is comprised of former military UAS pilots, and we are positioned to be the first commercial agriculture entity to have an exemption to fly, if we receive the approval. What this exemption would allow us to do is legally work with and partner with others in the industry on research, and help determine and develop products that agriculture needs. This could be monumental (for the industry).”

MJG: Any other takeaways?

RB: “What I keep coming back to is that agriculture users need a seat at the table, not just the equipment manufacturers. Agriculture needs to work with Congress to educate them on the importance of UAS technology and its uses and potential. Agriculture needs to embrace technology to meet the demands of both regulators and the general public. Agriculture needs to be aware and protect the integrity and value of our data, and that has already taken place with the OADA initiative and Big Data and all of that. Agriculture needs the ability to fly at 1,000 feet and the drone industry needs to work with agriculture and the agriculture lobby to leverage political clout to get the job done, plain and simple.”

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