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Nancy Smith

Will Florida Allow Drones to Survey Agriculture?

January 26, 2015 - 6:00pm

Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the first agricultural-specific permit for the use of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

According to ADAVSO, the permit winner, the company will use drones as part of a precision-agriculture program. Precision-ag requires site-specific data to make farm-management decisions, like nutrient and water use.

Such a program, experts say, could help an agriculture-rich state like Florida. For instance, University of Florida researchers have been testing the use of small helicopters to check citrus trees for greening, a disease that has dealt a huge blow to one of Florida's treasured industries.

The uses for customized drones, proponents argue, are boundless, including for surveying fields, inspecting, mapping, monitoring moisture and growth and analyzing application results.

In fact, after addressing Wednesday's AP legislative preview meeting for reporters and editors, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told Sunshine State News he is entirely tuned in to the benefits of UAVs as a tool for the state's $108 billion industry. "Not only am I aware of drone programs formulated for agriculture, I've established a study group made up of growers, government officials -- all stakeholders -- to look at all the possibilities."

But, a top priority in 2013 for one of the Florida Senate's most powerful Republicans was a bill limiting drone use in the state. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, along withMelbourne Republican Ritch Workman in the House, passed the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, restricting the use of drones in law enforcement. The bill was subsequently signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

At the time he was crafting the bill, Negron told Sunshine State News, "I would anticipate very minimal uses for drones, and it may end up being that because the uses are so limited, it's not practical to have one.

Contacted Wednesday, Negron said drones for police surveillance and drones for ag are two different things. "My bill only dealt with the use of drones by law enforcement," Negron said. "I have no objection to farmers and ranchers using civilian drones for agricultural purposes."

Nationally, the FAA is writing rules for the commercial use of UAVs, and the agency has a September deadline to establish regulations for small aircrafts.

However, as the first state to pass legislation limiting the governments use of drones, the fate of UAVs in Florida agriculture -- even with Negron's approval -- is not yet a certainty.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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