Optionally Unmanned Crop Dusting

In an important ruling this week, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an exemption allowing the use of an unmanned aircraft (UA) for aerial application. In its ruling the FAA determined “that a grant of exemption is in the public interest. The enhanced safety achieved using a UA with the specifications described by the petitioner and carrying no passengers or crew, rather than a manned aircraft of significantly greater proportions, carrying crew in addition to flammable fuel, gives the FAA good cause to find that the UAS [unmanned aerial system] operation enabled by this exemption is in the public interest.”

Prior to this ruling, unmanned aircraft could not be operated for commercial purposes in US airspace – even over private farmland. The petition for exemption was opposed by several groups concerned about the risks of unmanned aircraft operating in national airspace. The FAA determined the risks could be mitigated, in this case, by limiting altitude and airspeed (400 feet AGL and 45 mph max). The ruling also spells out specific flight operating procedures, as well as fuel reserves and sensors required on-board the craft.

Unlike autonomous drones, the exempted unmanned aircraft is piloted from the ground, with the craft in the operator’s visual line of sight. As a safety precaution the exemption requires the operator to possess a sport pilot rating at the minimum and be accompanied by a spotter in radio contact who must also maintain visual line of sight to the craft in flight.

The ruling is significant in that it recognizes the value of unmanned aircraft to agriculture and establishes a framework for the expansion of aerial application by unmanned craft. The US joins Japan, South Korea and Australia in allowing the commercial use of an unmanned aircraft for aerial application.