Two faculty members in the Department of Agricultural Systems and Education at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, test fly a drone in a corn field. Photo by Russell Bailey

The Federal Aviation Administration recently released its first set of rules for unmanned commercial drones, looking to smooth out the bumps for folks who fly the aircraft as part of their business.

Jamie Nafziger, a Minneapolis-based tech and intellectual property lawyer who has commercial drone policy experience, thinks the rules will make it easier for farmers to monitor crops remotely and make adjustments during the growing season.

“I think it makes it a lot easier for people to [monitor crops] using drones, in addition to the other ways they’ve been doing that with satellite imagery or aircraft,” Nafziger says. “It’s often paired with agronomy services. So you could go out and fly a drone, collect information using different types of sensors, either cameras or other sensors that would tell you things about the health of the plants or storm damage or different kinds of things like that.”

The rules, which cover drones up to 55 pounds (including cargo/accessories), require operators to be at least 16 years old and hold a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, or be directly supervised by someone with such a certificate. Also, the rules require the drone to stay in the line-of-sight of the operator, a stipulation that could limit the devices’ effectiveness for ranchers looking to keep track of livestock over many acres or foresters wanting to get an eagle-eye view of a wilderness.

There are some possible downsides to the proliferation of our new drone overlords, however. Concerns about privacy, especially from agencies looking for environmental infractions or animal abuse, are making some farmers wary of the new technology.

But, like the bargain users strike with Internet giants when they share personal data in exchange for online tools or convenience, some may think is the loss of privacy may be worth it. It’s a model that’s worked pretty well for Facebook.

“It’s going to be important for people to be willing to share the data if they want to get the benefits of some of these technologies,” Nafziger said. “Certainly people could close off their world but then they’ll not really be able to use these. Because, obviously, with the sensors they have to connect up with software and the software probably has to connect up with other databases. The data will need to flow to get the benefits. Ultimately, hopefully people can find a way to work it out with agreements. I think that is a concern and maybe in a few years there will be some agreement in the industry about how to best do all of that.”

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