What’s Next for Ag Drones Following UPS Flight Forward Approval?

My colleague here at Meister Media, Matthew Grassi, cut his teeth on the technology side of row crop agriculture before shifting his focus earlier this year to specialty crops and the emerging cannabis and hemp markets.

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But he’s a certified drone pilot and still keeps a close eye on technology in our world. So when he got excited about the FAA’s announced approval of delivery service UPS’ last-mile drone delivery business — UPS Flight Forward — we asked him what it all meant.

“UPS Flight Forward is for Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) medical supply delivery in North Carolina, and that’s big news,” said Grassi. “It stands to reason this can and eventually will go a long way toward normalizing BVLOS missions, the likes of which have long freaked out aviation and aerial application professionals who see drones as a legitimate safety threat to manned operations in the National Air Space (NAS).

“Since its passage in 2016, the agency has approved many Part 107 Waiver Requests for BVLOS missions,” he continued. “But many find FAA’s Part 107 Waiver Process cumbersome, and it makes planning long-term business a pain. Oftentimes waivers for certain operations can take as long as 90 days to come through.”

The ability to cover more ground per flight with a BVLOS model could help make drones more of a viable management tool for larger, multi-site ag operations or an independent ag drone service provider.

Who knows how long it will take for this to proliferate beyond “Big Brown,” but the stars appear to be lining up for more practical deployment options for drones.

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Avatar for Bill Lavender Bill Lavender says:

BVLOS is obviously the beginning of a very long road to effective aerial applications with drones. Of course, other obstacles such as limited gross weight, flight time and adhearing to label requirements are all issues that one day will be resolved on a limited basis. The integration of drones in the aerial application industry can be a positive thing. Or, as agricultural professionals know, the uninitiated to the stewardship needed to handle pesticides from the air could create a fiasco for all. Everything I read from the drone manufacturers leaves me to believe they are not nearly adequately versed in what really happens when you turn a pesticide loose into the environment. Until the promoters of making aerial applications with drones understand this, the industry is sitting on a powder keg.

The ag-aviation industry has worked for decades to improve its image. Its national (NAAA) and state associations focuses on safety and accurate applications. The ability for an aerial applicator pilot to effectively do this, including a drone pilot, requires extensive, targeted training. Simply buying a drone and convince the FAA to issue a limited Part 137 certificate does not make an aerial applicator; not even close. This would be akin to someone with more money and guts than sense buying an ag-plane and start treating crops. Any grower would tell you that is a recipe for a disaster, drift-wise for sure.

Let’s hope drone manufacturers and their customers realize this and start working toward meeting the same criteria of professionalism that any aerial applicator does.

Regards, Bill Lavender

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