What You Need to Know Before Adding Drones

Admit it. If you haven’t already bought or watched or tried your hand with a drone (also known as UAVs), you’re likely intrigued with the idea of adding one to your farming operation. After all, numerous research studies have already shown the potential value and on-farm usefulness of this rapidly-growing technology.

But the two biggest questions crossing your mind should be (1) what do I need to know or do to get started, followed closely by (2) what’s the best equipment for my operation.


A workshop titled “Risk & Reward: Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Agricultural Producers” – conducted during the 2018 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio – provided plenty of answers to those and other questions. The program was supported by a grant from the Southern Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Getting Started

Actually, the best first step to take is to review the potential legal and liability issues involved with drone use before looking at equipment.

“Historically, when you’re talking about property law, the old ad coelom doctrine meant if you owned the land, you owned it all the way to the center of the earth, and you owned the airspace above all the way to the stars and heavens,” said Rusty Rumley, senior staff attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center. “That worked well in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s. But when commercial aviation began in the early 1900s, people started complaining about trespassing.”

The Air Commerce Act passed by Congress in 1926 set property airspace rights at 500 feet. To avoid conflicts, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set the navigable airspace for drones at 400 feet and below.

“The FAA is in charge of the safe and navigable airspace within the U.S., and they’re going to look at things like licensing, aircraft specifications and anything that relates to safety,” stated Rumley. “Things like privacy, trespass and nuisance have been left to the states, and many of them have passed laws covering a broad variety of areas. Before adding drones, make sure you know what your state’s laws are. Chances are there are going to be at least two or three or more statutes to consider.”

Rumley pointed out that there are some exemptions to these statutes, but private use is not one of them. He also suggests adding drone insurance as a layer of protection. Most policies cover liability for physical damage should your drone crash, but generally don’t cover any state violations.

Licensing and Registration

The FAA divides drone use into two categories – one for hobby use and the other for commercial use. For agricultural purposes – especially if you’re planning to use it enough to expense it out on taxes – you’ll need a license, even if you’re only flying above your own property. You’ll also have to register your aircraft if its take-off weight is more than 0.55 pounds or less than 55 pounds.

Certification and registration information is available online at FAA.gov.

Usage Guidelines

A series of interim rules governed drone usage until the FAA issued permanent rules – known as Part 107 – in August 2016.

“Part 107 clarified concrete permanent rules,” said Dr. Jim Robbins, Extension specialist/professor with the University of Arkansas. “Working under interim rules was really difficult. For those of us who have been working with UAVs, this was a huge, positive direction.”

Those rules, in essence, set the guidelines for drone usage:

  • Pilots no longer need a medical certification or need to take the Private Pilot FAA Knowledge Test
  • Pilots are required to have a remote pilot airman (RPA) certificate with a small drone rating
  • Pilots must be vetted by the FAA and must be at least 16 years old
  • Visual line of sight operation only
  • Maximum flight altitude of 400 feet
  • Daylight only operation
  • No flying over persons not directly participating in the operation

Choosing Equipment

Aircraft fall into two broad categories – rotary and fixed-wing. Robbins advised to clearly establish how you plan to use the drone – both the aircraft and sensor/camera – before purchasing. Rotary aircraft are the most common and easiest to work with, both from a training and cost perspective.

For novice flyers, Robbins suggested purchasing a nano/micro drone to practice with before investing in a larger model. Product bundles may also provide additional value. And be sure to have spare parts on hand.

“You will crash,” said Robbins. “Just be prepared. It’s a painful process when the battery dies at 100 feet, and there’s nothing you can do.”

Complete information from the workshop – including details on sensors, flight navigation programs, mapping and other uses – is available online.


From Cotton Grower Magazine – February 2018