Drone use on farms: What are the laws?

Farmers encouraged to know the laws to avoid fines.

While the appeal of using unmanned aerial systems by farmers and growers to aid in farm operations is growing in popularity, an Ohio State University Extension field specialist in agricultural and resource law recently said that it’s important to be aware that launching a drone over your crops to gauge field conditions could result in a hefty fine from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Peggy Hall, also an assistant professor at Ohio State University, said that while the technology is available for farmers and growers to utilize drones for their farm operations, the rules of who can use it and how aren’t as clear.  

“In this case, the technology is clearly ahead of the law,” she said. “While there are unmanned aerial systems available for purchase by consumers, the regulatory system on their usage is still developing.”  

Hall explained that while landowners, farmers, and growers need to know if it is legal to use UASs on their own land to monitor crops or for other uses on their farm, it’s still a gray area in the law.

The FAA is expected to propose rules by the end of the year for drones weighing less than 55 pounds, which would typically be what most farmers would use for their farm operations, she said, noting that regulations for larger UASs will come later.  

But until such regulations are set, some farmers assume that they can fly UASs on their farms for personal use, Hall explained. 

“At this point, the FAA doesn’t allow UAS usage for personal commercial operations, even on private land, without an FAA-approved certificate or waiver,” Hall said. “Hobbyists can operate drones for recreation without a certificate, while universities and other governmental agencies can operate UASs for research and development with approved certificates from the FAA that include where they can be flown.”  

“But the FAA considers all other drone activities as ‘commercial’ activities that are regulated, or will be regulated once FAA develops the regulations.” 

Some people, however, are using drones anyway and are facing fines by the FAA, Hall said. An example is the $10,000 fine levied against a man who was hired to fly a drone aircraft over the University of Virginia in 2011. The FAA levied the fine against the man for making the “commercial” flight without FAA approval. 

The fine was later reversed by an administrative law judge who said the FAA doesn’t have the authority to issue such fines, but the FAA has appealed the case to the National Transportation Safety Board. Despite the initial ruling, the FAA has stated that it intends to continue fining those who use UASs for commercial purposes without FAA approval, Hall stated.  

Farmers who want to operate drones on their farms may face these fines from the FAA, she said. 

“Until the FAA develops the regulations for commercial certificates, farmers have to be careful and aware that the possibility of being fined by FAA for using drones without a certificate is there,” Hall said. “The FAA’s concern is safety. Are you willing to take that risk to be fined?” 

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