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FAA enforces requirements for farmers operating a drone


Disclaimer – The following is meant only for educational purposes and not to be construed as legal advice. Contact your legal advisor and the FAA for more information.

Flying a drone can be fun and exciting, however, for safety reasons, many rules need to be followed. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a myriad of regulations that drone pilots need to know, including farmers who just fly over their land. Farmers may own the land but the FAA controls the airspace.

Farmers get exemptions for several agricultural activities, however, operating a drone (UAS- Unmanned Aircraft Systems) is NOT one of them. That is a common myth.

FAA TRUST Certificate for Recreational Flying

Flying a drone only for “fun” around your farm and taking pictures for “fun” is considered recreational. Flying recreationally requires an FAA The Recreational UAS Test (TRUST) Certificate that is relatively easy to obtain.

This type of certificate requires a short course and test (30 minutes) and a $5 fee. The tests are administered online by several FAA-approved organizations. The TRUST program and test are not considered to be difficult, but they are required. The program goes over basic drone operation knowledge, flying requirements, and safety. 

FAA Part 107 Certificate for Commercial Flying

If your flight is not just for “fun”, it is considered commercial. If you are flying to monitor stand counts, diseases, weeds, wet spots, or anything else involved in managing/operating your farm, you are flying commercially. Money does not have to be exchanged to be considered a “commercial” flight. For these types of flights, you need FAA Part 107 certification. 

Part 107 certification requires completing a course and passing a rather complicated test. Most people who adequately prepare for the exam, from a good flight school (online), do pass, but not without extensive preparation.

Farmers can take a Part 107 course online. The cost for these courses is generally around $150.  Additional, optional materials are available and usually cost under $50. The course that I took was very thorough and well-taught. It was advertised to take 20 hours, but I spent over 80 hours taking the class. There is a final exam and once that is completed you then take the proctored FAA exam. These exams are done at an official FAA testing center and currently are not offered online.

The Part 107 courses provide information on when, how, and where you can fly. Operating in various air space locations has different rules and requirements. For example, you will learn how to read a Sectional Chart and if you are flying around Havana, IL the Chart will show there is a military MOA that could restrict your flight (MOA being an acronym you will learn). For a further example, much of southwest Peoria and parts of Pekin and Bartonville (and nearby farms) are in restricted airspace where you will need to get permission from the control tower before flying. With permission, there will be restrictions such as lower than the normal flight ceiling of 400 feet above the ground.

New Remote ID Requirement and Registration

In addition to being certified, farmers need to have their drones registered with the FAA. Beginning in 2023, the FAA requires that most drones commonly used by farmers must have “Remote ID.” These drones will broadcast the identification number and they will be able to identify violators. Fines for regulation violations range from thousands to millions of dollars.

Since drones can be relatively simple to fly (emphasis on relatively), it is easy to think that there is not much risk in flying one. The reality is, drones have collided with aircraft, injured people, and caused property damage.

A neighbor of mine crashed into my backyard, narrowly missing two houses as children were playing in the backyard. I have had aerial applicators fly low over a field at the same time I was using my drone to map. I’ve also had drone control issues after a software update. Don’t take chances, know the rules. Get your FAA Part 107 certification before using your drone on your farm for management purposes.

Benefits of Drones for Farm Management

Drones can be an excellent tool to use in managing your farm operation. From the air, you can get a great view to see how your crop is doing. Crop population stands can be counted.  Diseases such as SDS can be spotted early. The possibilities are almost limitless for the benefits.  A farmer can tell a lot from the sky about a crop without expensive software. Some of the software on the market is excellent to assist you in your farm operations. Drones can also be used for chemical applications and other dispensing types of applications. Dispensing drones are much more expensive and require additional certifications, such as FAA Part 137.

These tools can be very beneficial and I encourage farm operations to adopt drone technology. Keep in mind these critical points:

  • The FAA has legal requirements for flying drones. Ignoring these can cost you hefty fines.
  • Local jurisdictions may also have additional regulations.
  • Check with your liability insurance company for drone coverage. Some may cover farm drones, while others do not. Farmers can purchase liability insurance from various companies by the year, month, day, and hour right from their smartphone.
  • Fly safe and responsibly.

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Kevin Brooks is the Farm Business Management and Marketing Educator for Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties. He  grew up on a corn and hog farm in Iowa. He received his bachelor of science degree in agriculture business from Truman State University and his master of science degree from University of Missouri in agriculture education.

Kevin is licensed in Illinois as a real estate broker with harVestco LLC in Champaign, IL.   He has professionally managed and consulted on over 25,000 acres of farmland and marketed grain for farm management customers as a professional farm management and trust officer.  Kevin has taught Farm Management, Agri Business Management, Crop Science, Crop Production, Soil Science, Pesticide Application, Grain Marketing, and General Horticulture at the college level.

Kevin holds agriculture teaching certifications in Illinois and Missouri.  He is also a commercially licensed UAS (drone) pilot holding an FAA Part 107 license.  He has worked in agricultural input sales (farm chemicals and seed) and is trained in agronomy through Purdue University and Iowa State University. Early in his career he worked for USDA, as a Farm Management Specialist, working primarily on farm loan analysis.

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