Exemption gives farmers reason for optimism

As drones increasingly become a part of daily life, is the approval of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for widespread commercial use on the horizon?

On May 1, agriculture took a step in this direction, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 – granted the Yamaha Motor Corporation of Cypress, Calif., an exemption to conduct agricultural operations in the United States using its remotely piloted RMAX helicopter.

“The RMAX is capable of providing a wide array of essential agricultural spraying services, including watering, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides,” noted the FAA in Exemption 11448. “The RMAX can also be equipped with sensors and equipment to detect and monitor agricultural areas that require irrigation, fertilization or other treatments.”

In Japan, the RMAX has a 20-year history of safely performing agricultural operations. According to Yamaha, the RMAX has logged over 2 million flight hours in Japan alone.

The FAA indicated that this “well-established performance and safety record,” along with the RMAX’s recent approved use in Australia and South Korea, influenced its decision to grant the exemption.

Yamaha’s RMAX also has a history of use in the U.S., albeit a briefer one. The remotely controlled helicopter has been used to spray vineyards in California through a research partnership with the UC Davis since 2012.

Ken Giles, a UC Davis agricultural engineering professor and lead researcher on the University’s remote-controlled aircraft project, told V&WM: “The FAA approval is certainly cause for optimism, if not celebration, in that it affirms that integration of a larger, payload-delivering UAS into the airspace system is a reality and that responsible, safe and regulated use of the technology is now possible.”

Specs and Uses

The Yamaha RMAX rotorcraft is 9 feet long and 3 feet 6 inches tall, has an empty weight of 141 pounds and a load capacity of about 61 pounds for both liquid and granular applications. The unmanned aircraft has a maximum speed of 45 mph.

“Certainly, FAA approval is a positive development,” said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) in Sacramento, Calif., with regard to the RMAX. “I don’t think growers have had the opportunity to fully consider the wide number of potential uses for UAVs. So, as more UASs are approved for use in agricultural settings, I think we’ll see greater creativity in the application of UASs to address real world problems and challenges.”

When it comes to vineyard use specifically, Aguirre wonders if the RMAX’s capacity might hinder its potential.

“The Yamaha’s load capacity of 61 pounds is a significant limitation, particularly when you think about general mildew prevention and control efforts in large vineyard settings,” he explained.

That said, Aguirre further noted that it’s always good to have “another tool in the toolbox.”

“It seems to me growers will be most interested in using UASs to monitor and track vine performance during the growing season,” continued Aguirre. “UASs can help growers more quickly identify areas of vine stress related to deficiencies in water, nutrients or pest and disease pressures. The Yamaha RMAX may help growers address certain hot spots that demand quick attention, but I think most growers will continue to find land-based systems of delivering crop protection products most useful.”

Taking Flight

While Tully Stroud, an experienced drone enthusiast and PCA/viticulturist for the Monterey, Calif.-based vineyard company Monterey Pacific, Inc., finds the FAA’s exemption of the Yamaha RMAX notable; he is more curious about what’s next.

“It will be interesting to see what regulations the FAA puts forward later this year regarding small UAS under 55 pounds,” said Stroud.

Currently, to fly a commercial UAS requires obtaining an exemption under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a UAS to operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS).

“There exist several possibilities to build a vehicle with similar performance to the RMAX for a fraction of the cost, if you can get the Section 333 exemption,” Stroud explained.

Adding to the cost of the RMAX, says Stroud, is the current restriction of having a licensed pilot fly it. If and when the FAA grants approval for operations by non-pilots, as well as for semi-autonomous flights, he believes that usage of drones of all kinds would increase significantly.

As to the actual published cost of the RMAX in the U.S., the Yamaha’s website states: “No pricing has been established for the U.S. at this time.” On the FAQ page of its Australian website, Yamaha notes that the RMAX cannot be purchased outright, but rather acquired solely through a “fully maintained rental arrangement.”

“Overall, the biggest benefit that I can see from the approval of the RMAX is that there is now an unmanned vehicle that is legally available off the shelf for agriculture use,” Stroud said.

“I believe that when the FAA publishes the rules on small UAS, you will see a multitude of different options that can rival the performance of the RMAX, but at a small fraction of the cost,” he continued. “The real wild card in the mix will be to see who can commercialize a rugged, reliable and safe flight controller that can be used in a civil aviation setting.”

Rules and Regs

While the Yamaha RMAX was granted the FAA exemption, certain restrictions and requirements apply. Licensed pilots must maintain a line of sight with the RMAX, and cannot fly at an altitude above 400 feet. Additionally, operations must be conducted over private or controlled-access property, and cannot take place within five nautical miles of an airport.

Additionally, the FAA’s approval of the RMAX for flight was just that: The exemption was granted to the Yamaha RMAX only. Other UASs would require individual approval.