Aerial image of Penn State’s research hopyard at Rock Springs. Photo by T. Delvalle, Penn State
In most cases, the media and general public refer to these aircraft as drones. Unfortunately, drones usually receive a negative connotation, primarily due to individuals who use them improperly, illegally, or even as a means to conduct terrorism. The proper term for these systems is small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), so we will refer to these aircraft as such in this article.
Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) have been available to the public for several years, and their presence in our skies has increased exponentially over the past year. Since December of 2015, over 770,000 sUAS owners have registered their sUAS with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This number is more than doubled that of the number of manned aircraft in the United States! The FAA predicts that this number will continue to rise to over 3.5 million over the next five years. Will you be one of them?
In order to use these systems legally and effectively, there are a few things that need to be understood. For starters, all sUAS weighing between 0.55 and 55 lbs. must be registered with the FAA. This process is very simple and straightforward. It can be done online, and only costs $5.00. Performing this registration allows a user to fly a sUAS as a recreational or hobby use.
However, flying over agricultural crops in order to make a management decision does NOT constitute as recreational or hobby use, and is classified as a commercial use.
Even though a grower may not be paying someone to fly over the crop to determine if something should be done agronomically, the FAA defines this as commercial use of a sUAS. If you intend to be a commercial operator, even if just on your own farm, you will need to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate (RPC). This is a certification that requires an initial aeronautical knowledge test to be taken at an FAA-approved testing center.
This requirement is not meant to be intimidating, but does require some light reading or studying. The information learned by studying for the test is a valuable tool to ensure safety and compliance on all sUAS missions. The testing process takes approximately 1-2 hours, and costs $150.00. Once a user passes the knowledge test and is issued a Remote Pilot Certificate, it is valid for two years.
Commercial operators must follow the following guidelines, but waivers are obtainable to allow operations outside of these:
- Operate in Class G airspace
- Must keep the aircraft in sight
- Must fly under 400 feet (above ground level)
- Must fly during the day
- Must fly at or below 100 mph
- Must yield right of way to manned aircraft
- Must not fly over people
- Must not fly from a moving vehicle
If you decide to become a commercial operator, or even just a recreational user, you will need to purchase a sUAS. There are several manufactures in the marketplace, at pricing from as low as $100 to over $25,000. Depending on your intended use, you can likely find something in the $500 to $1,500 range. If you only need something with a standard RGB camera, the price will be low, but special filters and cameras can become quite expensive.
Agricultural technology is rapidly expanding, and sUAS can certainly be a great tool for monitoring agricultural crops. The possibilities are seemingly endless for using sUAS, from automated flight imaging to the ability to calculate plant heights, plant counts, visualize plant stress, observe disease or insect progression, and much more. It is foreseeable that in the not-so-distant future, sUAS will be used to treat crops with pesticides or fertilizers as a precision agriculture tool.
Aerial image of the Penn State Plant Pathology Research Farm at Rock Springs at a height of 390 feet. Photo by T. Delvalle, Penn State
No matter what you may intend to use a sUAS for, one of the most rewarding aspects of operating a sUAS is simply being able to view our landscape from a completely different perspective than we are used to. The images and videos that can be captured with very little training are quite remarkable, and will surely allow you to appreciate the beauty of our landscape.