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Farms Take Advantage of Relaxed FAA Drone Regulations

Under new FAA regulations released in June and set to go in effect in August, farmers nationwide will be able to legally take their field scouting to the sky, opening wide a multibillion-dollar agricultural market.

(TNS) -- Texas rice farmer Scott Savage is a gadget guy in a family that’s never shied away from the state-of-the-art, but his decision to order a $2,000 camera-equipped drone two Christmases ago was made largely with visions of “neat stuff” photography of harvests and bird’s-eye field shots.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that he realized the roughly 5-pound droid might have been one of the most useful purchases in his family farm’s five-generation history.

Unlike Savage, who’s a licensed pilot, most farmers or ranchers using drones to scout for damage or track wayward cattle are technically breaking the law, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Several South Texas agricultural drone users declined to go on the record about it because they weren’t sure of the rules.

That’s about to change. Under relaxed FAA regulations released in June and set to go in effect Aug. 29, farmers from across the nation will be able to legally take their field scouting to the sky, opening wide a multibillion-dollar agricultural market that, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, could account for 80 percent of all drone use.

Rice is a thirsty crop, and Savage’s 2,500-acre Matagorda County farm is flood irrigated with water controlled by the Lower Colorado River Authority, which for several years was so drought-stricken it couldn’t allot rice farmers any water at all.

The rains returned this year, but with a vengeance. Strong downpours have been known to wash out sections of the levees that hold the water in. That’s on top of pesky problems such as wild hogs that rip holes in the earthen walls while foraging for grub worms.

Within minutes, Savage’s drone can spot those breaches, something that used to take hours or even days of scouting on foot or by four-wheeler.

It’s a crucial function. Now in their first full year of production since 2012, the Savages and other regional rice farmers know that if the LCRA detects major water waste, it can cut their water off.

“Where we’ve been using it more lately is actually ag use versus pleasure,” Savage said.

Under the new rules, drone operators will be able to obtain certification for commercial use via a written test and vetting by the Transportation Security Administration. Use will be limited to drones that are under 55 pounds and flying below speeds of 100 mph. They also must be kept within line of sight and can’t be flown over people, two restrictions that don’t work well for growers wanting to scout large stretches of acreage where there may be farm laborers at work.

But agriculture industry representatives said the new regulations put valuable technology in reach for farmers or ranchers who don’t have a pilot’s license, which is needed to get a “Section 333” waiver to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASs).

“There was only one game in town and that was that Section 333 waiver. So any farmers who were interested in utilizing this technology, using UAVs, drones, UAS, all the names we like to call them ... they had to go through this burdensome bureaucratic waiver process,” said R. J. Karney, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s a great initial step. It’s really going to allow farmers to utilize an emerging technology that’s going to give farmers that new tool in the tool box that they can use for their precision agriculture techniques. That’s an exciting opportunity.”

Still, the Farm Bureau is hoping the rule will be tweaked to make it legal to fly the drones farther than they can be seen by the operator and to go over people working in the fields.

“This has gotten the technology in the farmer’s hands,” Karney said. “Now that they’re using it, they can use it in a safe manner, build a track record. We’ll be able to work with the FAA whenever the opportunity allows itself to tweak the rules to better allow farmers to maximize its potential.”

Over the long term, Karney said, the industry hopes the FAA will also revisit the 55-pound weight issue, which could open the industry to drones that can carry and spray pesticides and fertilizers.

“This technology has the potential to allow farmers to be more efficient, more effective, and a lot more environmentally friendly,” he said.

So many farmers have been asking Savage for pointers that he has started doing tutorials.

“I’m 29, so I’m definitely more in sync with today’s technology,” he said. “My dad and my uncle and grandfather, we all work together. Of course I’m trying to teach them and get them all updated to the 21st century. All new farmers and ranchers, they have to be technologically savvy.”

According to an April study by Lexington, Massachussets-based WinterGreen Research, the market for agricultural drones is expected to grow to as much as $3.7 billion by 2022, part of a wave of investment in agricultural technology that shows no sign of ebbing. Venture capital investment in agricultural technology startups reached $4.25 billion in 2015, double the capital invested in 2014.

“I tell people agriculture is the new Silicon Valley,” said Timothy Gertson, who grows rice and organic corn on his family farm in Lissie. “It’s the forefront of technology and information. It’s really the world’s biggest industry, and that’s where we can grow. Nobody’s making any more land, so we just have to be more efficient with what we do have, and at this point technology seems to be how we’re able to achieve these goals.”

Gertson, 31, plunked down about $1,200 for a drone last year and now thinks he can develop a side business of using his drone to help other farmers survey for flood damage or locate cattle, services he’s so far done for free.

His drone’s gotten a lot of attention, even among older farmers who aren’t as comfortable with new technology.

“In fact, I have a farmer who’s over 70 years old who just bought one now. Because they’ve all been coming to me asking, ‘What do you got? How do you use it?’” Gerston said.

“With the older guys there’s a little more of a learning curve. They’re a little more apprehensive about it,” he said.

That wasn’t the case for Gerston. “I just took it out of the box and went with it,” he said.

He’s looking to upgrade to a newer version that can use infrared imagery to assess crop health, but that would take the purchase well beyond the novelty range.

“Twelve hundred, that’s fine,” Gerston said. “I don’t have to make money with that. You know, if all I do is enjoy it, that’s great. But if I’m going to spend 10 to 12 grand on a thing, I better make some money with it. That’s not a toy anymore.”

He said there was still a gap between acquiring the data and putting it to use.

“Say I had an infrared camera. I go out and fly autonomously, map fields, get all that done for people and give it to them, but what are they going to pay me?” he said.

There isn’t yet a viable pricing model for the data, he said. “There’s still I guess some analytics to be done there.”

Jason Ott, Nueces County extension agent for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, said growers in his Coastal Bend region weren’t sold.

“There’s a lot of applications that people are looking at where they can sense, see stress and that might help them identify some insect damage, things like that, but you know right now the technology isn’t there,” he said.

But Mani Skaria, a retired Rio Grande Valley plant pathologist who has been studying use of aerial imagery for agricultural use for decades, said he was amazed at how far things have come.

Information that 15 years ago took a couple of hundred thousand dollars and required airplanes and pilots to get can now be collected by laymen using a $2,000 or less drone. He’s found some of the drone data to be better than what he gets contracting with a satellite service.

“I can get that information this afternoon on my laptop for a fraction of the cost. That’s the amazing part of it,” he said.

He’s so far been able to quickly spot and take care of emerging weeds and repair rabbit damage to the expensive drip irrigation system for his commercial micro-budded citrus groves.

“We were able to take care of it within a day,” he said.

Like other older farmers, he was introduced to drones by a younger farmer, who used his drone to solve a mysterious disappearance of grapefruits from his trees.

“He was able to spot unwanted pickup trucks, trucks moving in his orchard,” Skaria said. “He followed them, and they were actually stealing fruit from his orchard. So he used the drone to follow these guys and in the meantime he called the cops and they caught them. … He’s a young tech guy so he used his talent to explore what was going on.”

©2016 the San Antonio Express-News Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.