Many ranchers are excited about the opportunities UAS may provide for things like checking cattle and mapping fields and pastures. Before a rancher takes his or her UAS to the sky, however, knowledge of the applicable regulations is important.

Dowelllashmet tiffany
Associate Professor & Specialist / Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension

The following are some of the provisions that could have the greatest impact on agricultural UAS users.

Registration of a UAS

All UAS weighing between 0.5 and 55 pounds, regardless of whether flown for hobby or for commercial use, must be registered with the FAA before first flight. The registration process is fairly painless and, for most users, may be completed online.

Registrants must be at least 13 years old, must pay a $5 fee, will need the make and model of the drone, and must label the aircraft with an official registration number given at the completion of the registration process. Each registration is good for three years.

Remote pilot airman certificate with small UAS rating

Operators using a UAS for commercial purposes must obtain a “remote pilot airman certificate with small UAS rating.” Doing so, however, is fairly straightforward.


Requirements include that the operator be over 16 years old, speak and write English, be in a physical and mental condition sufficient to safely fly a drone, complete a TSA review process and either pass an initial multiple choice aeronautical knowledge exam at an FAA-approved testing center or hold a current sport pilot’s license, complete a flight review in the past two years and take an online training test.

The cost to take the test will be around $150, and the FAA estimates that a temporary certificate can likely be processed within about 10 days of application receipt. The certificates will be valid for two years.

Pre-flight safety check

The certified pilot must conduct a pre-flight safety check to ensure there is no equipment damage or malfunctions.

Allowing non-certified pilot to operate controls

A UAS may be flown only by a certified pilot or someone under the direct supervision of a certified pilot. Direct supervision means that the pilot is able to easily gain control of the drone if needed. Each pilot may supervise only one person at a time, and each pilot may fly only one drone at a time.

Base of operation

A UAS may not be operated from a moving aircraft. Drones may be operated from a moving vehicle if in a sparsely populated area.

Visual line of sight requirement

The pilot must maintain a constant visual line of sight with the UAS without the aid of a device other than corrective lenses or contacts. For example, eyeglasses are allowed, but binoculars are not.

The operator may use a visual observer to help maintain the line of sight, but no person may serve as a visual observer for more than one UAS at a time. A visual observer and pilot must maintain “effective communication” with each other at all times.

Flight in certain areas prohibited

A UAS may not be flown over people who are not involved in the flight, inside a covered structure, inside a covered stationary vehicle or within a controlled airspace, meaning that drones may be flown only in Class G airspace, which is not controlled by Air Traffic Control.

In order to fly in any controlled airspace, the pilot must obtain approval from Air Traffic Control before the flight.

Yielding right of way

The operator of a UAS must yield the right of way in order to avoid collision with other users of airspace.


There must be at least 3 miles visibility from the UAS control station.

Time of day

Flight may occur only during daylight and civil-twilight hours, meaning UAS can be flown 30 minutes before official sunrise until 30 minutes after official sunset so long as proper anti-collision lighting is present.

Maximum altitude

A UAS may not be flown in excess of 400 feet above ground level.

Maximum speed

UAS speed may not exceed 100 miles per hour.

Use for aerial application

A UAS used to dispense herbicides, pesticides or similar substances must also comply with the separate “agricultural aircraft operation” regulations. This rule contains separate certification, operation and reporting requirements that should be carefully reviewed and followed.

Reporting incidents to the FAA within 10 days

If an incident occurs and results in either serious injury or loss of consciousness to any person, or damage to property (other than the UAS itself), if the cost of repairing or replacing (whichever is lower) exceeds $500, it must be reported to the FAA within 10 days.

Certificate of waiver

If a person can safely operate a UAS outside these rules, he or she may request a certificate of waiver from the FAA that will allow deviation from specific requirements of the rule if the FAA determines a safe flight would still be possible. The waiver must be received by the operator before flight, so requests should be submitted at least 90 days prior to the desired flight.

Potential penalties for violation

The FAA will enforce these rules, and violators could face civil penalties up to $27,500. Criminal penalties up to $250,000 may also be imposed if destruction of property or threats to public safety occur.  end mark

PHOTO: Ranchers intent on utilizing unmanned aircraft systems should be familiar with new regulations passed by the FAA. Photo by Thinkstock.

Tiffany Dowell Lashmet
  • Tiffany Dowell Lashmet

  • Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist - Agricultural Law
  • Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
  • Email Tiffany Dowell Lashmet