UAVs: Droning Through The Red Tape

by Matthew J. Grassi for Croplife

A whole lot has happened since we last explored the world of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). In January, Empire Unmanned (Hayden, IA) became the first agriculture-focused venture to receive a FAA Section 333 exemption for commercial missions. Pravia (Niceville, FL) followed with an exemption of its own soon thereafter, becoming at the time the third precision agriculture company approved for 2015. March 4 brought that number to five with the approvals of 3D Aerial Solutions and Viking for precision ag operations, respectively.

On the regulatory side, on February 23 FAA released its much-awaited Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) concerning regulations for commercial operations, detailing what upcoming commercial regs will look like for certain, green-flagged industries like agriculture and mining.

Loosened UAV Regs’ A Swing And A Miss So Far

The 195-page NPRM document is long-winded and chock full of aviation industry legalese, but basically the NPRM limits commercial use to drones weighing under 55 lbs., flights are restricted to daylight only and must remain below 500 feet, and the UAV must remain within the operator’s line of sight (without the use of visual aids like First Person View [FPV] goggles or binoculars) at all times.

And while the proposed regulations specifically mention “crop monitoring/inspection” as an example of possible small UAV operations that could be legally conducted under the proposed framework, FAA might end up having to head back to the drawing board and draw up a new set of rules for ag users to get all of the economic and operational efficiency benefits.

“While these were positive implications, overall the rule still has several restrictions that would hinder the growth of the commercial market,” said Gretchen West, VP of Business Development and Regulatory Affairs, DroneDeploy, in a DroneWorld news release. “FAA is only allowing drone flight within direct visual line of sight of the operator, which restricts many potential applications for precision agriculture use, large area surveying and inspection, and more.

“Other limitations include restricting flights to daylight hours, not allowing other people in the flight area unless they are directly involved with the flight and only allowing one drone flown per operator,” she continued. “We do not believe any of these proposed restrictions would have an adverse effect on the safety of the National Air Space (NAS) and believe there are technologies that can mitigate the majority of the risks outlined in the proposed rule.”

Brendan M. Shulman, the attorney that successfully defended Rafael Pirker against the FAA in 2014’s most polarizing UAV case, issued a legal opinion through his Kramer Levin law firm on the line of sight requirement as well as other aspects of the NPRM.

“It is not clear why a beyond line of sight provision was not included that turns on future certification of a sense-and-avoid system. That approach would have, in the near term after finalization of the rule, limited operations to line of sight, while also allowing the FAA flexibility to authorize more complex operations when the (sense and avoid) technology is deemed ready,” Schulman writes. “As it stands, the proposed sUAS rule may need to be revisited by the FAA in another round of rulemaking in order to permit such operations, and it seemingly sets up another prolonged era in which the law will fall behind the technology.”

Sense And Avoid Needed

The sense-and-avoid technology that Schulman references in his brief is not that far from commercialization. Precision Hawk, developers of the Lancaster drone, recently launched its Low Altitude Tracking & Avoidance System (LATAS) as a possible remedy for FAA’s national airspace saftey concerns.

According to the company, as a platform agnostic, automated air traffic control system for UAVs, LATAS has the ability to “provide flight planning, tracking and avoidance for every drone in the sky using real-time flight data transmission based on world-wide cellular networks.” Developed to be “plug and play” or integrated into a UAV’s circuit board during manufacturing, LATAS is small (3x2x1in), light (>100G) and operational on network speeds as low as 2G.

“The development of LATAS is based around the idea that we can use existing technologies at a low cost and weight, and avoid the creation of an entire new system,” said Tyler Collins, Director of Business Development at PrecisionHawk and LATAS creator, in a press release. “We need more advanced computer systems to deal with the technology side and reversely, we need the technology side to work within traditional safety methods to provide the FAA with a safety-first solution.”

LATAS also reportedly allows users to request, track and verify all flight operations from a centralized location, and automatically report flight paths back to the FAA, according to the company.

“Cheaper, smaller and more commonly used UAVs, those are the ones flying in the approach paths,” said Collins. “In the technology world we reward innovation and speed, but in the FAA’s world they reward safety. LATAS is a viable solution to reward both sides; giving pilots a way to know where UAVs are before they become a safety concern.”

Still, it must be stated that, for its part, FAA does seem more willing and open to working with ag-users than in years past. The agency recently went as far as directly addressing condemnations of the line-of-sight constraint by advising flight crews that they can place multiple spotters around a field to visually track the flying robots over a larger range.

However, as our friend Robert Blair (TheUnmannedFarmer.blogspot.com) recently told Reuters, the new rules would require him to fly 10 separate drone missions to cover just the 1,300 acres he farms, since he would have to continuously shift his location in order to keep his drone within sight.

“There’s no way we can cover the ground we need to cover,” Blair said in the Reuters article.

FAA is taking public comment on the NPRM through April 24. Interested parties can go to www.regulations.gov and search “UAS” to initiate the comment submission process.