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Farmers fight for drones

Farmers fight for drones
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Tractors, plows, chickens, cattle and drones? Farmers long known for basic salt of the earth ways, are begging for high tech drones. But for now, drone use on farms is actually illegal.

Drones, those remote controlled airplanes and helicopters have been big news stories from military strikes to backyard privacy concerns. The name, drone, actually covers everything from a child's remote control toy to multimillion dollar military weapons weighing 6 tons or more.

Drone technology, including remote controls, power systems and even live video is moving so fast, that government regulation can't keep up to separate the safe uses from the dangerous or privacy intrusive concerns.

Now farmers say they really need drones to stay competitive in world markets. But flying a drone over a farm right now can land the pilot in hot water.

One thing about farms: they are usually pretty big.

Crops like corn and wheat can spread out over miles of mid west farmland. Out in the west, grazing cattle can roam thousands of acres of grasslands, often with few roads. Farmers and ranchers have long used airplanes and helicopters to survey their wide-ranging operations from the air. But full-size aircraft are expensive and can be limited by weather that makes manned flight too risky at times.


Remote control aircraft are usually much cheaper, can be launched and flown quickly and can carry an array of airborne sensors and cameras to help spot agriculture problems early.

"Drones have great potential for mapping and assessing the health of crops and livestock so that producers can know how quickly they need to devote attention to those areas," says Tami Griffin, an agribusiness expert.

But government regulation is holding up drone use for agriculture.

Aircraft, and the air itself over the U.S., is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA. It is responsible for ensuring that pilots are qualified, aircraft are safe and that they don't crash into each other or anyone on the ground.

But drones present a big challenge to the FAA. Right now, nearly anyone can easily fly a drone nearly anywhere - including over populated areas like neighborhoods - or around real people-carrying airplanes near airports. Currently there is essentially no regulation of what qualifies a drone pilot or even what a safe drone is.


The only guidelines date back to model airplane builders and their radio-controlled craft. Hobbyists are limited to aircraft under 55 pounds, flown under 400 feet in altitude, operated only within line of sight and well away from people, airports or aircraft. Traditionally, model builders spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars carefully building their treasured craft. With so much invested, they were highly motivated to learn how to expertly fly their models and keep them safe.

Now an explosion of cheap, easy to fly video-equipped  drones, is putting remote controlled aircraft in the hands of many who have not come up through the hobbyist route, mentored by club members and experienced flyers. Some of these drones have fueled privacy concerns from people who fear them peeking into backyards or windows and safety concerns about them crashing into people or damaging property.

Can you shoot down a drone over your own back yard? Read my earlier report here.

While the FAA tries to figure out how to handle all these concerns, it has adopted a policy of "when in doubt, don't." Hobby use continues. Commercial use, that is anything that could be charged for or furthers a business, including agriculture, is prohibited for now.

In January, FAA chief Michael Huerta testified to a senate panel that at least some unmanned drone uses will be mixed into U.S. airspace by a Dec. 30, 2015, deadline.

But, "Even today, we don't have a full and complete understanding of where this is going in the future, and that's one of the things that creates the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenges," Huerta testified.

Michael P. Huerta is the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration

That's a problem for many in American agriculture who say the U.S. already is failing to keep up with other nations in drone use that could provide billions of dollars in economic growth.

"We're behind the eight ball when it comes to places like Japan and Australia, which have been using drones in agriculture since the 1980s," said R.J. Karney, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau. "There's an urgency to get the ball moving on this," he said.

So for now the quaint image of the rough and tumble rancher on horse back is safe. But sometime, probably sooner than later, don't be surprised to a drone remote control in his hands.

How do you feel about drones? Are you concerned about video cameras peeking into your private space? Or do you think the government is being overly cautious by not allowing commercial use of unmanned aircraft? Please let me know in the comments below. I'll keep following the drone story and let you know as we know more.

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Source: NBC News
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