The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday issued permits to use drones to monitor crops and photograph properties for sale, marking the first time permission has been granted to companies involved in agriculture and real estate.
The exemptions to the current ban on commercial drone flights were granted to Advanced Aviation Solutions in Star, Idaho, for "crop scouting," and to Douglas Trudeau of Tierra Antigua Realty in Tucson, Arizona.
Advanced Aviation Solutions plans to use its 1.5-pound, fixed-wing eBee drone to make photographic measurements of farm fields, determine the health of crops and look for pests. The aim is to save farmers time walking through fields. The drone also can carry sensors that pick up information invisible to the naked eye, which can help determine which fields need watering.
Trudeau's exemption authorizes him to fly a Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter to "enhance academic community awareness and augment real estate listing videos," the FAA said.
Real estate companies have been eager to gain permission to use drones to photograph and make videos of pricey properties.
The permits require that drone operations include both a ground "pilot" and an observer, that the pilot have at least an FAA private pilot certificate and a current medical certificate, and that the drone remains within line of sight of the operator at all times.
Before these approvals, the FAA had granted 12 exemptions to 11 companies involved in the oil and gas, filmmaking, landfill and other industries.
As of today, the FAA has received 214 requests for exemptions from commercial entities.
The agency is under pressure from Congress, the drone industry and companies that want to use drones to provide broader access to U.S. skies. FAA officials had said they hoped to propose regulations to permit general commercial use of small drones by the end of 2014, but that deadline has slipped.
Industry forecasts predict drones will create tens of billions of dollars in economic development and create thousands of new jobs once commercial use is permitted, but an Associated Press poll conducted in early December found Americans are skeptical of the benefits of heralded drone revolution.
Thirty-three percent of Americans oppose using drones to monitor or spray crops, while another third support it. Only 27 percent of Americans favor using drones for aerial photography. Privacy and safety are key concerns.
FAA officials say preventing potentially deadly collisions between drones and manned aircraft is their top priority. The agency receives reports nearly every day of small drones flying in the vicinity of manned aircraft and airports even though that's not permitted.