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Agricultural Drone FAA Regulations & State Laws: Your Part 137 Guide

Updated: May 3

Agricultural Drone FAA Regulations & State Laws: Your Essential Guide

You're a farmer focused on your land and harvest, not deciphering government red tape. But, like it or not, flying your unmanned aerial system (UAS) on your farm isn't a free-for-all. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has rules, and your state likely has its own, and figuring out what applies to you can feel overwhelming.

I've spent years in the trenches of agricultural drone operations – testing 190 pilots, over 28,000 flights for over 4100 hours of flight time, and developing drone curricula for over 2,000 schools. I've seen the immense benefits drones bring to modern farming, and I've also seen the frustrations regulations can cause.

My goal is simple: help you cut through the regulatory confusion. Don't let those rules ground your drone before it takes off. In this guide, I'll break down the essential FAA regulations and help you navigate the patchwork of state laws. I aim to give you the confidence to fly, knowing you're doing it right – and avoiding those costly penalties no farmer needs.

Why Regulations Matter for Your Agricultural UAS

Common farmer issues, I hear, are:

  • "FAA limits prevent me from spraying my entire field in one go..."

  • "My neighbor complained about my drone. Can they legally stop me?"

  • "I’m confused about if I need extra licenses on top of my applicator one..."

No one likes being told what to do, especially when it feels like it's slowing you down on your land. But ignoring drone regulations isn't just about risking a slap on the wrist. It directly impacts your bottom line in several ways:

Wasted Time and Money:

A grounded drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) means lost time scouting, delays in crop treatment, and the potential for lower yields. Rescheduling flights takes time and eats into your tight schedule. Fines, if caught operating illegally, cut directly into your profits.

Liability Risks:

Crashing into a neighbor's property or, worse, causing an injury opens you up to lawsuits. Even without a crash, if a neighbor feels harassed by frequent flights or worries about chemicals, they can make reports. This leads to investigations, further grounding your operations, and potentially even permanent restrictions on your drone use.

Ineffective Operations:

Regulations impact how high you fly, where you fly, and even the type of drone you can use for specific tasks. If you need help understanding these rules, you might rush treatments or use the wrong equipment, leading to poor crop results and wasted resources.

Bottom Line:

Flying smart isn't just about following the rules but protecting your investment and harvest. Understanding the regulations empowers you to use your drone effectively, minimize risks, and reap maximum benefit from this powerful agricultural tool.

FAA Rules for Agricultural Drones – Part 107 and Part 137

FAA Part 107 Overview:

Think of Part 107 as your basic "drone driver's license." It covers the core rules for flying a drone commercially on your farm. To earn this license, you must pass the FAA's Remote Pilot Certificate exam. This tests your knowledge of airspace, weather, safety procedures, and drone regulations.

Part 107 allows basic agricultural drone use but comes with limitations:

  • "Lightweight" Drones Only: Your drone, including everything it's carrying, can't weigh more than 55 lbs at takeoff. This severely limits the size of your spray tank and the amount of chemicals you can apply per flight, slowing down operations. (The Office of the Federal Register)

  • Eyes on the Prize: You must keep visual contact with your drone at all times. This limits how far you can scout fields and may make mapping less efficient. (The Office of the Federal Register)

  • No Night Flights: Part 107 limits flying to daylight hours. This can be a major issue for spraying when temperatures might be cooler or during early pest outbreaks that need immediate action. (The Office of the Federal Register)

Part 107 is essential for any farmer wanting to fly a drone, but it does not cover larger operations or specialized tasks.

When Do I Need More Than FAA Part 107?

FAA Part 107 opens up many possibilities for using drones on your farm. However, if you need to do any of the following, you'll need additional FAA permissions:

  • Fly drones over 55 lbs: Larger drones often mean larger tanks, fewer refills, and more efficient spraying operations. If your work requires a heavier drone, Part 107 won't cut it.

  • Dispensing economic poisons: This is the big one for most farmers – applying pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.

  • Dispensing other substances for plant growth, etc.: This would include things like fertilizer application.

  • Spray crops for hire: If you plan to offer drone spraying services as income, even on neighboring farms, you'll likely need to operate under a different set of rules.

Part 107 is a fantastic starting point, but you will need a more specialized "driver's license" from the FAA for advanced agricultural drone applications.

FAA Part 137: Agricultural Aircraft Operations

If you're using a drone to apply pesticides, fertilizers, or other substances commercially or spray crops for hire, then FAA Part 137 comes into play alongside your Part 107 certification.

How Part 137 Works With Part 107

  • Step 1: Remote Pilot Certificate: You'll still need to earn your Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate as the foundation of your commercial drone operations.

  • Step 2: Specialized Training: To operate under Part 137, you'll likely need an additional Agricultural Aircraft Operator Certificate, demonstrating further knowledge of regulations and safe practices specific to crop treatment.

Aircraft Requirements: Part 137 also has its own set of rules about the type of aircraft (including drones) you can use for spraying tasks, ensuring they meet the necessary standards for this kind of work.

Why Part 137 Exists: While Part 107 covers broad drone safety, Part 137 regulations focus specifically on the unique safety considerations and potential environmental impact of aerial crop treatment.

Beyond Restrictions: Drone Section 44807 Explained

Part 107 and 137 are a good start, but for advanced agricultural drone use, you may need Section 44807 exemptions. These can lift weight restrictions, allow for flights beyond line-of-sight, or enable nighttime operations. Here's what it would unlock:

  • Heavier Drones: This means larger tanks, more efficient spraying, and the possibility of using the right equipment for the job, even if it exceeds Part 107 limits.

  • Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS): Enable flights over larger areas, more comprehensive mapping, and wider scouting range.

  • Nighttime Operations: This is vital when timing is everything, especially during pest outbreaks or for optimal crop treatments.

It's important to understand that exemptions aren't handed out freely. You'll need to submit a detailed application to the FAA, carefully demonstrating how you'll safely mitigate the increased risks associated with rule waivers.

U.PASS Assists:

Obtaining a 44807 is time-consuming and requires expertise to demonstrate FAA knowledge. Only a few people submit these applications and get them approved within 4-6 weeks. This is where U.PASS comes in to help you with the entire process, guide you through it, and get you through to part 137 and beyond.

FAA Drone Case Study: The XAG P100 Dilemma

Let's make this real. Imagine you're an Iowa farmer battling an outbreak of Tar Spot. You've invested in an XAG P100 agricultural drone, hoping to spray fungicide quickly and efficiently to protect your crop. However, there's one big problem:

  • Fungicide Woes: You can't spray pesticides, herbicides, OR fungicides under FAA Part 107. You will need FAA Part 137 to overcome this restriction.

  • Weight Woes: The XAG P100, when fully loaded for operation, exceeds the 55 lb weight limit imposed by FAA Part 107. This means more frequent landings to refill, potentially slowing down your treatment at a critical time. You will need Drone Section 44807 to go beyond this limitation.

XAG P100

The FAA's Reasoning (It's Not Just Red Tape!)

It's easy to get frustrated by weight limits and the inability to spray under Part 107 rules. But the FAA does have specific reasons for these restrictions:

  • Heavier Drones: These pose higher safety risks if there's an accident. Larger, faster machines require more space and situational awareness for safe operation, and the FAA wants to mitigate those risks for both the operator and those on the ground.

  • Poisons: While essential for crop protection, agricultural chemicals represent potential environmental and health hazards. The FAA, the EPA, and other agencies want to ensure they're handled responsibly and by those with the proper knowledge and safeguards.

Only by having your Part 137 and Section 44807 with your Part 107 can you use your XAG P100 for what you want.

U.PASS Assists:

I had the privilege of answering 1,000 questions from numerous pilots, which led to the creation of a membership website called U.PASS. The U.PASS website is a one-stop platform where new and experienced pilots can access general information and ask state-specific questions about the aviation industry. There are dedicated forums for each state where pilots can share their best practices, find certified drone dealers, watch tutorial videos, access logbook apps, view state events listings, and read articles from various state departments of agriculture.

UPAA is a website designed for pilots to navigate the aviation industry and have a voice in the best practices for crops and states. The website offers a guide that can assist new and current pilots with 85% of their queries and a forum to provide unique information.

Know When the Class 3 Medical Requirement Applies For Your Drone

Don't let an unexpected medical hurdle ground your drone operations. Alongside your drone pilot license, you might also need an FAA Class 3 Medical Certificate to fly your agricultural drone in certain situations. Most drone or UAS operators will never need a medical; this is reserved only for the drone classification over 55 lbs. So, an agricultural UAS operating under 55 lbs will not require a Class 3 Medical.

If you're flying without the required medical certificate when you need one, it's the same as flying without your drone license. That could result in fines and restrictions on your operations.

The primary factor for most farmers is the drone's overall weight. If your aircraft, including everything it carries (spray chemicals, etc.), exceeds 55 lbs at takeoff, you'll likely need a Class 3 Medical.

Don't worry; this is less rigorous than the physical required for traditional aircraft pilots. It's a basic health checkup with an FAA-designated Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). For an explanation of this requirement and its reasoning, go to page 4, part d.2: https://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Notice/N_8900.659.pdf

Beyond the FAA: How State & Local Laws Impact Your UAV Flights

The FAA sets the baseline for drone flight, but it's a partial word. States, counties, and even towns may have their own rules impacting your agricultural drone operations. Think of it as needing multiple layers of permission to take off – and missing any of those layers could ground your plans.

Drone State Law Example

If you plan to use your drone to apply any chemicals, you'll almost certainly need a state-issued applicator's license alongside your FAA drone pilot certifications. And don't assume the rules are the same across state lines!

Licensing requirements vary significantly between states. For example:

  • Oregon: 50 flight hours under a journeyman

  • North Carolina: 120 flight hours under a journeyman

  • North Dakota: 10 flight hours under a journeyman

  • Arizona: Five required tests

  • Missouri: One required test (core and category)

Drone Local Restrictions

Local rules may have no-spray zones near schools or sensitive areas, restrictions on flying near public events, noise ordinances, etc.

U.PASS Assists:

Navigating and keeping track of federal and state regulations can be confusing. U.PASS has developed individual dedicated state pages to help drone pilots stay up-to-date with state-specific laws and reporting. These pages also link to Department of Agriculture study materials, licensing, and reciprocity. Moreover, the Department of Agriculture will post any new information or changes to requirements or reporting on these pages.

Drone Enforcement: Know the Risks, Fly Smart

Think flying under the radar of regulators is possible? Think again. While the FAA might not be handing out massive fines for every minor infraction, non-compliance with drone regulations carries serious risks that can directly impact your bottom line.

The Drone Police

Where Drone Penalties Hit Hardest

  • State Scrutiny: States are stepping up enforcement where the FAA has taken a lighter touch. Expect heavy scrutiny of your applicator license and adherence to state regulations. Slip-ups here can lead to fines and even suspension of your ability to spray.

  • Insurance Troubles: If something goes wrong – a damage claim or an overspray incident – your insurance company will want proof that you were operating legally. Failure to follow FAA rules and Part 137 requirements could jeopardize your coverage and expose you financially.

Proactive Protection: Your Drone Logbook is Your Shield

Don't assume complaints are always unfounded. A disgruntled neighbor or a concerned citizen might report you for activities like spraying too close to waterways, even if their accusation is false.

UAV Enforcement Case Study

In Oregon, I had a pilot who reported for such an infraction. Fortunately, with meticulous drone logbook records, we proved he wasn't even in that area during the alleged incident. Without those records, facing penalties or insurance disputes would have been much more difficult.

Complying with regulations isn't just about avoiding trouble; it's about protecting your ability to operate your agricultural drone effectively and without costly disruptions.

Do I need a Drone Logbook?

You're right! Understanding that the FAA and state agencies require flight and application records is a sign that a pilot is serious about compliance. But here's the problem: most off-the-shelf drone logbooks weren't built with the specific needs of agricultural operations in mind. They might miss crucial details that state inspectors look for.

Creating CropFlight Drone Logbook to Help Pilots

After working with so many pilots, I saw firsthand how confusing it was to meet all the compliance requirements. That's why I created a specialized logbook platform to simplify the process. It takes the guesswork out of what to record and how to format it to satisfy both FAA and state regulators.

We know that farmers are busy – the logbook needed to be easy to use, even for those delegating the data entry. But the value doesn't stop at just logging. CropFlight Drone Logbook aims to streamline your entire workflow:

  • Easy Billing: Easily generate accurate invoices straight from your flight and application data.

  • Scalability: The platform adapts as your operation grows or Part 137 regulations evolve.

  • Reporting Made Easy: Generate the reports the FAA and state agencies require with minimal hassle.

Welcome to CropFlight Drone Logbook: Compliance Confidence

Think of it as more than record-keeping; CropFlight Drone Logbook helps optimize your agricultural UAV operations, saving you time and minimizing the risk of costly compliance headaches.

Staying Updated: Flying Sprayer Essential Resources

Navigating the constantly changing landscape of drone regulations is frustrating, especially when focused on crops rather than paperwork. Slogging through FAA and state websites to find the correct information and updates can feel overwhelming. That's where U.PASS comes in!

U.PASS was designed to be a one-stop resource for agricultural drone pilots. The U.PASS system helps gather all the necessary information for state and federal compliance. It also enables drone pilots to share their knowledge and experiences about the best practices in their respective states. On a national level, it helps keep all pilots informed about legislation being proposed or needing to be implemented for or against. Log into www.UPASS.Foundation.

My Perspective: The Future of Ag Drone Regulation

The states are more likely to tighten rules since the FAA has loosened theirs. U.PASS is encouraging states to become more uniform in their requirements for aerial application and is making suggestions on best practices across the board. I created a national work group for all the agriculture departments to come together and discuss best practices. California and its new requirements lead the conversation by creating flight and application rules.

U.PASS Assists:

U.PASS will serve as a bridge to facilitate the implementation of regulatory changes as the industry evolves. Given that U.PASS is designed to operate state-by-state, pilots and agricultural departments will find adapting to changes easier.

About the Author

Michelle Truman - Agricultural Drone Expert

Michelle Truman is an entrepreneur and top business executive in entertainment and professional sports. In 2016, she and her business partner, Don Wakamatsu, a former MLB manager and third-generation farmer, launched the WakWay Foundation (https://www.wakway.org). During spring training, they distributed over 200,000 servings of fruit and vegetables to the inner city. Together, through that project, they saw a need for technology in farming to decrease waste input and created Farm-i-tude (https://www.farmitude.org/). 

Today, Farm-i-tude has tested over 200 drone pilots in 38 states in the last year alone, flown over 28,000 missions, and logged over 4,000 hours in the air. Additionally, the Farm-i-tude curriculum is now available in over 2,000 schools under the ACTE program, which supports the next generation of farmers through technology. 

Due to her extensive experience in the industry, she has been invited to speak on the importance of using drones in agriculture. Moreover, her team has recently developed a new logbook that tackles all the problems they faced with the previous logbooks available in the market.

Michelle and her team have recently created the first and only pilot association for agriculture pilots and set the standards for safety at U.PASS: Unmanned Pilot Association For Safety Standards (https://www.upass.foundation). She currently serves on that board.

 

Works Cited

The Office of the Federal Register. “14 CFR 107.110 -- Category 1 operations. (FAR 107.110).” eCFR , The Office of the Federal Register, 15 1 2021, https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-14/section-107.110 . Accessed 12 April 2024.

The Office of the Federal Register. “14 CFR 107.29 -- Operation at night. (FAR 107.29).” eCFR , The Office of the Federal Register, 28 June 2016, https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-14/section-107.29 . Accessed 12 April 2024.

The Office of the Federal Register. “14 CFR 107.31 -- Visual line of sight aircraft operation.” eCFR , The Office of the Federal Register, https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-14/section-107.31 . Accessed 12 April 2024.

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