@griTech: Unmanned aerial vehicle update!

EARLIER THIS YEAR, in the February 2014 edition, Central Florida Ag News published an article that focused on the emerging possibilities for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), or drones, in agriculture. Now, ten months later, Dr. Reza Ehsani, associate professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) in Lake Alfred, shares some intriguing information about the agricultural drone applications.

A few years ago, Ehsani and his team of researchers developed a UAV that can assist in identifying a myriad of citrus diseases, such as HLB or Citrus Greening, as well as manage grove inventory by aerial imaging. The UAV developed by Ehsani’s lab can even help identify biotic and abiotic stressors in trees, such as wind damage and pesticide burns; the applications of these UAVs would be mutually beneficial for citrus groves, growers, and researchers.

Despite the numerous benefits of the use of UAVs in the agricultural industry, legal drone use has been limited to leisure and research situations. With all the benefits and limitless applications of drones in agriculture, one may wonder, what is preventing these tiny aerial vehicles from roaming our skies?

Simply put, the Federal Aviation Association’s (FAA) proposed regulations stand in the way of the commercial implementation of this technology. In the previous article, we discussed how Congress was working with the FAA to develop new regulations, which would prevent the UAVs from interfering with any manned aircrafts, as well as manned agricultural airplanes and helicopters. The changes were expected “to take effect by 2015, and would allow drones to be used for commercial applications.” The guidelines that stand in effect at this time exclude most agricultural sized drones. Strangely, no regulations are enforced on “mid-size” automated (unmanned) aircrafts, weighing over 55 pounds; in other words, “drones over 55 pounds are unregulated for private use.”

UAVs under 55 pounds — like the ones developed in Ehsani’s lab — will be subjected to regulations, which would prevent people from using them for agricultural field applications. For example, drones would not be allowed to fly out of sight of the operator. The operators of the drones would also be required to have a “low level flight certification,” which can only be obtained by completing several hours of flying a manned aircraft (an actual airplane). Ehsani explains, “I strongly believe that having rules and regulations as well as relevant training are absolutely necessary for safe operation of UAVs. I also believe delay in developing these rules and regulations is not helpful and puts the growers in this country at a disadvantage compared to the growers in other countries that allow the use of UAV in their airspace. Since agriculture is considered the biggest market for UAVs, I think the FAA can come up with rules and regulations just for agricultural application of small UAVs in a fairly short time. Most agricultural fields are in remote locations and small UAVs (less than 50 pounds) can be operated safely with a trained pilot if they fly below 400 feet altitude and in the line of sight.”

Luckily, the current proposed regulations are just that, tentative regulations. According to the FAA, they are expected “to publish a proposed rule for small UAVs— under about 55 pounds— later this year. That proposed rule likely will include provisions for commercial operations.” Until those regulations are passed, researchers like Ehsani and his team will continue to use research grants to further develop their drone technology in hopes that the FAA will soon pass regulations that will allow UAVs to be used safely and legally for agricultural use.


article by JULIE GMITTER