Drone Usage

Drone Usage Guidelines

By Heather Schlesser


The use of drones is becoming common place in our society.  We hear of drones being used for military attacks, and for recreational purposes.  But what purpose do

drones serve in the agricultural industry?  What should we look for in a drone and what do we legally need to know in order to fly them? This article aims to answer all of these questions and more.

Resources to help recreational and commercial drone users get started are available on the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) website: https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/.  This website outlines some restrictions and policies in place for drone pilots.  The main thing to note is that every drone needs to be registered with the FAA, whether for recreational or commercial use.  At this time the cost to register your drone is $5 and the registration is good for 3 years.  You will get a printable certificate of registration with a certificate number when you register your drone.  This number needs to be visible on your drone (figure 1). Note: There are other companies that will register your drone for you, and they charge you a convenience fee to do so.  Register directly with the FAA to pay only $5.

If you are flying your drone for commercial purposes then you need to also take the Part 107 FAA test to obtain a Remote Pilot certificate.  The first Remote Pilot certificates were issued in August of 2016.  The certification is good for 24 months and is issued through the FAA.  It is important to realize that the use of a drone in any way for your business requires the operator to obtain a Remote Pilot certification.

The FAA considers the use of a drone by a farmer to scout their own crops as commercial use, requiring a Remote Pilot certification.  If you are purchasing a drone to check your crops or animals you need to apply for a Remote Pilot certification.

To obtain a Remote Pilot certification you need to pass the Part 107 test with a 70% or better.  The test currently cost $150 plus tax.  Testing centers can be found here: https://www.faa.gov/training_testing/testing/media/test_centers.pdf.

Once you have passed the exam you will need to register at the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA: https://iacra.faa.gov/IACRA/Default.aspx).  After you complete the online application process you should receive an email to download a temporary certificate within a few days.  You will get a permanent certificate in 6 to 8 weeks from the FAA.  You should have this certificate on you every time you fly the drone.

When flying your drone it is important to keep in mind that you:

  • cannot fly your drone above 400 ft.
  • have to keep your drone in your line of sight
  • have to be aware of FAA airspace restrictions
  • have to respect people’s privacy
  • cannot fly at night

It is illegal for you to fly your drone near an airport. For safety reasons you should never fly your drone directly over crowds of people, animals or near emergencies. Never fly a drone when you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Let’s now consider possible uses for drones on your farm.  With today’s technology, drones can be used to scout fields for trouble areas. With the right sensors, you can determine areas that are stressed even when they visually do not show it.  Drones can also be used to keep an “eye” on your cattle herd or pasture fences.  Instead of walking pastures you can save time by sending the drone out to “look” for new born calves, injured animals and damaged fencing.

Some drones allow the programming of waypoints which are used to mark the drone’s travel pattern. Once you set your waypoints the drone will follow the designated flight pattern without your control.  This allows you to fly over the same areas and cover the same spots each time the drone is deployed over the field.

Knowing which features/ sensors you need on your drone is another point to consider.  Small unmanned Aircraft systems (sUAS or drones in this article) are typically classified into two main categories, rotary or fixed wing.  There are some advantages to owning a rotary aircraft over a fixed-wing aircraft:

  1. Rotary aircraft can hover in place
  2. They do not need a runway to takeoff – vertical takeoffs
  3. Lower flight altitudes
  4. Multi-directional flight paths
  5. More complex flight patterns

Fixed-wing aircrafts can cover larger areas and achieve longer flying times than rotary aircraft.  Since many of the drones sold on the market are rotary aircrafts we will focus on that here.  If you are interested in learning more about fixed wing aircrafts please visit: https://www.heliguy.com/blog/2016/03/01/choosing-fixed-wing-drone/

Before you can identify the features you need/ want on your drone, you need to know what you plan to use it for.  For a complete listing of all sensors and what they do see: https://www.uaex.edu/publications/pdf/FSA-6151.pdf:

  • Return to home (RTH): This is meant as a safety feature. If you lose the communication signal with the drone, or if the battery gets too low, then the drone knows to return to home automatically.  It is important to note that the aircraft’s flight plan will be the shortest route back to the home point.  If you flew the drone around a building or a clump of trees then there may be unplanned obstacles.  To avoid this, set your return to home altitude above any potential obstacles, and make sure you are always taking off from an area free of obstacles.
  • Auto tracking: This feature is called different things by different manufacturers but allows you to select a target for the drone to follow. This is useful if you want the drone to follow a target without you worrying about piloting the drone.  This can be helpful when assessing animal health status, because you can spend time watching the animal instead of trying to pilot the drone.
  • Hovering: This feature allows the drone to stay in relatively the same place. This is helpful if you are trying to do something else and do not want to land the drone.
  • Auto takeoff/ landing: This is a nice feature to assist with takeoff and landing the drone.
  • Waypoint navigation: This feature is good for planning and saving flight patterns. If you are interested in monitoring a crop field over the growing season it is important to compare apples to apples.  Having the same flight pattern each time allows for this accurate comparison.
  • Collision avoidance: This feature is very helpful in helping prevent accidental crashes of the drone. It is important to note where the sensors are on the drone you purchased.  Many times they are located in the front and bottom of the drone.  If you are flying the drone backwards, you are at risk of hitting something because there are no sensors in the rear of the drone.
  • Camera quality: You will want a camera that can take decent pictures of your crops or animals. Some drones do not come with a camera. When the drone comes with a camera, it is most likely a Red-Green-Blue (RGB) camera and you will need to purchase a Near-Infrared (NIR) camera if you are planning to use the drone for plant health imagery.

Questions about personal privacy and trespassing have come up as drone usage has increased.  It is important to fly your drone on your own property or to make sure you have permission to fly the drone from the home owner or owner of another property over which you want to fly the drone.

This article only scratches the surface on drone usage and does not cover how to interpret your pictures for plant health.  It is important to realize that you cannot generate plant health data without an NIR camera, the science does not yet support plant health data created by RGB cameras.

If you plan to fly a drone for your farm and deduct it as a business expense on your taxes, then you need to obtain a Remote Pilot certificate to stay in compliance with the FAA.  Drones can be fun and exciting to use; just make sure you are educated about them before you purchase one.

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