by Karl Plume and P.J. Huffstutter
(Reuters) – 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 technology.
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