Part 107 Remote Pilot Certification Resources for the Ag Professional

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The FAA’s new rules for Remote Pilot Certification under Part 107 may seem like yesterday’s news for drone insiders, but this regulation affects many industries in different ways.

Jul 5, 2016

I’m sure many reading this will have already perused the many of the numerous resources pertaining to the much anticipated release of the FAA’s operational rules for commercial use of UAS referred to as “Part 107”.  For those who haven’t, Part 107 is a portion of chapter 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (or the “CFR”) that is designed for the commercial operation of UAS in the United States National Airspace System (aka the “NAS”).  Part 107 negates the need for those exemptions to the CFR provided by Section 333 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act; which to date had been a stop-gap for the FAA to regulate commercial UAS folks in lieu of specific rules. Let’s take a deeper look into how the much anticipated rules shapes the Ag industry’s use of sUAS:

Start at the Source

There are already a ton of sites on the interwebs discussing the rules (AgFlyers included), but I’ve found the best way to get a good feel without reading the actual 624 page final rule is to review the summary provided straight from the good people of the FAA.  Read the summary? Good! 🙂 While much of the Part 107 moves Agriculture in a positive direction with respect to commercial drone use, we’re not quite over every regulatory hurdle just yet.

Things are looking up!

Probably the most anticipated portion of this new set of rules pertains to who’s doing the flying. With Part 107, the person operating the unmanned aircraft no longer has to hold a Part 61 pilot’s license.  Although being a Flying Farmer is awesome, you no longer have to be one just to operate a drone over your spread. The FAA will however require remote pilot certification with a small UAS rating.  To do this, previously unlicensed pilots will need to pass an aeronautical knowledge test at and FAA approved knowledge testing center.  If you happen to already have a pilot’s license, you can score your remote pilot certification by passing a free online course.  Having a pilot’s license is not required to take the online course, so folks looking to get their remote pilot airman certificate can (and most certainly should!) use this course as a study guide.  The Drone Girl has a great write-up on this topic that explains it in more detail.

The Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) and the person manipulating the controls can now be separate people. The RPIC need only be on-site to oversee the person at the controls of the drone. Conversely, the RPIC can operate the UAS without a separate visual observer.  Whereas a Section 333 exemption and the subsequent COA required a minimum of two on a flight crew, one is now the magic number; and that reduction in staff should make a lot of cost-conscious operators very happy.

Folks who have a UAV capable of flying longer missions can operate the UAS from a moving vehicle given that those operations happen over a “sparsely populated area”.  Since Part 107 rules still dictate having to maintain visual line of sight (VLOS), this is huge for the guys who want to fly large acres on nearby fields.  Loosening the regulatory reigns here, squarely puts the operational limits back on the hardware; as most often the primary limitation on how long you can keep your UAV safely in the air is determined by battery life.  Keep in mind however that the person operating the moving vehicle should not be considered to be part of the flight team (which is probably a bad idea anyway)!

There is room for improvement.

As I mentioned, VLOS is still required.  Flying beyond VLOS in the context of agriculture could however be quite beneficial for large-scale operations. Imagine being able to launch your drone in the morning, have it cover all of your acres, and return that afternoon with your data: Talk about an incredible time and manpower saver!   Still, I can understand why the FAA still dictates this as most UAVs marketed for ag use still lack sense and avoid technology. As the technology matures, I would expect senese and avoid to flourish in conjunction with the continued implementation of ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) receivers.  PR Newswire has an article that introduces a small ADS-B receiver and talks about the ADS-B mandate for all aircraft operating in US airspace by 2020.  

In-line with most all section 333 exemptions issued, daylight operations are still required.  While this is not a huge deal (especially for people seeking high sun for NDVI flights), it is problematic for folks researching the use of thermal imaging.  Being able to fly at night makes thermal imagery “pop” and trouble areas appear more profound.  

Another bummer is the altitude restrictions set at 400 feet above ground level.  To get an optimal stitch, especially in tall crops with closed or closing canopies such as corn, a higher altitude allows for more tie points for the stitching software to find in overlapping images.  This helps eliminate some of the “holes” in the stitch that it seems all software has been plagued with (Want to know more? Beau’s got a great article addressing stitching “pain points” you’ll want to check it out!)  

“Waive” your problems goodbye.

The FAA knew that it wasn’t going to be able to please everyone with a single stroke of the pen. Thankfully, steps are already being taken to handle grievances. The FAA is allowing a majority of the Part 107 operational restrictions to be waived if you can show that your proposed operational situation can be conducted with an equal or higher level of safety when compared to the current rules.  To manage waiver submissions expeditiously, they’re even establishing an online portal to handle waiver applications.

Read, Study, Discuss!

Looking for more on Part 107 rules? Start at the FAA’s small aircraft regulations fact sheet. It’ll hit the high spots and serve as a guidepost document for most facets of this new regulation, including operating requirements, remote pilot certification, and privacy.  Have questions beyond that? Don’t be afraid to ask in the forums!

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