Agribusiness professionals are already proficient with a variety of federal regulations (USDA, EPA, etc.) but adding an unmanned aircraft system (“UAS”) into the business brings another agency into the mix – the Federal Aviation Administration – with its own set of regulations. In some scenarios this added regulatory burden may be worthwhile because UAS can be used to perform crop protection product (“CPP”) spraying operations (“spraying”) on crops more efficiently than manned aircraft, saving money for both farmers and consumers. Yamaha Motor Corporation, USA (“Yamaha”) recently announced it has been granted an FAA exemption for its FAZER unmanned aircraft system (“UAS”) to be used for agricultural spraying.

The FAA’s regulates many of the characteristics for UAS devices that can be flown in national airspace system as well as the manner in which UAS operate. For small UAS that weigh less than 55 pounds, the regulations are found in 14 C.F.R. Part 107. For UAS that weigh 55 pounds or more, the FAA must grant an exemption to operate in the national airspace system. Because FAZER weighs more than 55 pounds, Yamaha needed to request an exemption rather than work within the Part 107 regulations applicable to small UAS.

The FAZER has a liquid tank capable of carrying up to six gallons of CPP, as compared to the four-gallon tanks on older variants, allowing FAZER to treat a larger area than its predecessors. There is reason to believe, however, that UAS-spraying is not quite ready to takeoff in the United States.

Previous versions of CPP-spraying UAS were not widely adopted in the United States even though they have been used in Japan for decades. One of the reasons for their lack of popularity in the United States compared to Japan may be the difference in the size of the farms. While the average farm in Japan is 3.7 acres, the average farm in the U.S. is 441 acres. While UAS spraying might be able to cover 3.7 acres efficiently, a farmer would need a UAS fleet to compete with manned aircraft, which frequently carry up to 800 gallons of CPP payload.

Another challenge for spraying with lightweight, unmanned devices is “drift,” which occurs when CPP is carried away from the targeted area by wind. Drift is a concern not only because it wastes CPP, but also because the aerial applicator will need to re-spray the area, and drift can result in harm to nearby persons and property, leading to legal liability.

One way that drift is minimized with manned aircraft is by installing vortex generators on the wings. Vortex generators alter the airflow over the wings, which allow the CPP to descend vertically onto the crops below, rather than migrating laterally with the airflow over a plane’s wings. Currently, it is uncommon for UAS devices to be equipped with vortex generators, and it is unclear whether UAS devices used for spraying generate sufficient airflow to make vortex generators effective. In light of these challenges, widespread adoption of UAS for spraying on American farmland may be unlikely until UAS can carry enough CPP to cover large areas of farmland and the devices can eliminate drift.

Nevertheless, the FAZER exemption is an important step for the unmanned industry in agriculture, and similar devices excel in niche operations. For example, unmanned spraying may be a good match for small farms and vineyards. Similarly, UAS may be useful for “crop scouting,” where UAS fly over the crop canopy to detect fungi, pests, water shortages, and generally evaluate the production of crops.

If you want to become an agricultural UAS operator, you should work with attorneys to understand the pros and cons of each exemption type and to understand current UAS regulations. You can reach Husch Blackwell’s UAS experts by contacting Erik Dullea and Chris Sundberg, and other members of Husch Blackwell’s Food and Agribusiness team who are happy to help your farm hire legally compliant UAS operators or help you become an agricultural UAS operator.