There has been a lot of talk about drones (also called “Unmanned Aerial Systems,” or “UAS”) lately.  From their use during wartime, to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s dream of using them to deliver packages to your doorstep, there is no shortage of conversation or opinions about these devices. 

But to hear that in five years domestic drones could make up a $13 billion industry likely comes as something of a surprise.  Currently, although the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA or Agency) to integrate the use of drones into the national airspace by September 2015, the Agency is hesitant to do so.  FAA regulations currently permit farmers to fly, over their own land, small, information-gathering drones.  But owning even a single drone is expensive, sometimes running up to $12,000, and the FAA imposes onerous restrictions on drone rentals (requiring case-by-case approval of a commercial license, a certified aircraft, and a licensed pilot). 

Drone manufacturers—and likely many farmers—would like to see more of these devices put to work on the farm.  A 2013 report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which represents drone manufacturers, suggests that, in the five years following FAA approval of commercial drones, “precision agriculture” could comprise nearly 90% of all civilian drone use by 2020.  According to the report, “precision agriculture” “refers to two segments of the farm market: remote sensing and precision application.”  That is,

a variety of remote sensors are being used to scan plants for health problems, record growth rates and hydration, and locate disease outbreaks. Such sensors can be attached to ground vehicles, aerial vehicles and even aerospace satellites. Precision application, a practice especially useful for crop farmers and horticulturists, utilizes effective and efficient spray techniques to more selectively cover plants and fields. This allows farmers to provide only the needed pesticide or nutrient to each plant, reducing the total amount sprayed, and thus saving money and reducing environmental impacts.[1]

The FAA’s hesitancy surrounding commercial drone use boils down to public safety.  But that does not mean that the Agency is completely averse to the idea.  In fact, the FAA recently revealed that it has approved six test sites from which to research the safety and effects of domestic drone use, and expects to issue a proposed rule governing broad use of smaller domestic drones this year.[2]

Michael Toscano, the president of AUVSI, acknowledges the FAA’s public safety concern, but nevertheless contends that “[t]he low-hanging fruit for this technology is going to be precision agriculture, because in the middle of 100 acres of corn, safety isn’t an issue . . . . Flying these vehicles over a corn field is much less risky than flying one over New York City.”[3]  But not every farmer is pro-drone, however.  Although they might be optimistic about agricultural uses, some farmers worry about federal agencies using drones to gather data and enforce regulations. 

The FAA has quite a task ahead, indeed—particularly balancing privacy and safety concerns with support for legitimate agricultural uses and technology-forward developments in the field.