CHICAGO Feb 18 U.S. farmers hoping to use
drones to locate lost livestock or monitor trouble spots in
their fields were disappointed by what they say are overly
restrictive commercial drone rules proposed Sunday by the
Federal Aviation Administration.
Two of the long-awaited draft rules were singled out for
particular criticism: a requirement that pilots remain in visual
contact with their drones at all times and a height restriction
that limits the crafts to flying no more than 500 feet above
ground. These constraints, farmers and drone operators say,
would limit a drone's range - and consequently its usefulness.
Leading drone makers PrecisionHawk and Trimble Navigation
Limited, farm data services firms, including ones run
by Monsanto and FarmLogs, and even some federal
lawmakers are saying the proposed rules could delay the
development of drone-assisted agriculture in the United States
if they are finalized as currently written.
The FAA said farmers can address the line-of-sight
limitation by placing spotters to track a drone's pilot.
Idaho farmer Robert Blair, who in January received the FAA's
first exemption for drone use on a commercial farm, said the new
rules would require him to fly 10 separate drone missions to
cover his 1,300 acres, since he would have to continuously shift
locations in order to keep his drone within sight.
Under the proposed rules, Blair told Reuters: "There's no
way we can cover the ground we need to cover" economically.
Even so, investors in precision farming say the new rules
are friendlier to farmers than they are to Amazon.com Inc.
The e-commerce giant, which plans to use drones for
package delivery, has indicated it may launch its first drone
deliveries in overseas markets rather than wait for broader
approvals from the FAA.
"People are looking for where the opportunities are ... and
agriculture is it," said Rob Leclerc, chief executive of
AgFunder, an online platform for investors in agriculture
DELAYS CAUSE TROUBLE
Many agricultural drones initially will be used to identify
trouble spots in fields or snap high-definition images of crops
for plant health analysis, jobs suited for the small drones
(weighing no more than 55 pounds) allowed under the proposed
rules. Drones also can be used to gather evidence for
For some farmers, the new rules will give FAA validation to
practices they already have deployed. Despite a current ban on
most commercial drone uses, classes teaching farmers how to use
the unmanned aircrafts have flourished at rural colleges, and a
bevy of YouTube videos stands as evidence that some farmers
already have begun piloting them.
Still, it could take two years before the new FAA rules,
announced Sunday, take full effect. Such delays could strain
cash-strapped startups, which could be out of business before
the market booms, say industry analysts.
Even now, companies that have invested in drone technology
are feeling strains.
"It's been difficult for us," said Jim Kirkland, general
counsel and vice president of equipment maker Trimble Navigation
Ltd, which received an FAA exemption from the ban on commercial
drone use in December and has made a series of acquisitions
aimed at beefing up its technology.
"We bought this business several years ago and we fly these
elsewhere in the world," Kirkland said. "And certainly we
haven't gotten the revenue out of it that we could if rules had
been in place."
The delay also is giving opportunities for competing
technologies, such as micro-satellites, to take root, said
attorney Roger Royse, founder of the industry group Silicon
By the time comprehensive rules are in place, larger
competitors likely will have absorbed upstarts and be positioned
to dominate the market, some industry experts say.
Florida-based Pravia LLC received an FAA exemption this
month to fly drones over 10 crop test sites in seven states
operated by seed company Syngenta AG. And Monsanto's
Climate Corp has applied for an FAA exemption to use drones
"We're certainly going to be testing different applications
of the [unmanned aerial systems] tools," Climate Corp chief
executive David Friedberg told Reuters.
With the regulatory outlook uncertain and no quick payoff in
sight, outside investment in drone technology has been modest.
Last year, 19 different drone or drone-related firms in the U.S.
and abroad received a total of $88.5 million in funding from
venture capitalists and other investors, according to AgFunder
research. All identified agriculture as a key market.
Among them: PrecisionHawk announced a $10 million Series B
round of fund-raising in November of 2014, which included
investments from venture capital firm Millennium Technology
Value Partners, Red Hat Inc. co-founder Robert "Bob"
Young and Intel Capital, the venture capital arm of chipmaker
To date, the drone maker has seen its farming business grow
abroad, in Canada, Latin America and Asia, where regulation has
been less restrictive. Now that the FAA has proposed its
regulations, PrecisionHawk plans to increase its hiring in the
U.S. this year, said spokeswoman Lia Reich.
The FAA has opened a 60-day public comment period, after
which it may consider changes to the proposed rules. Final
regulations might not be in place for two years.
"It's movement," Reich said. "Any movement is a positive
(Editing by David Greising and Sue Horton)