At the start of the pandemic, one of the novel ways drones were used to keep people from getting infected was as flying disinfectant dispensers.
Using a drone, health care professionals were able to spray disinfectant over large public areas more quickly than they could if they walked around spraying.
For some, the fact that drones could be equipped to spray anything at all may have come as a surprise, but not if you worked in agriculture with drones.
In fact, the specific drones that were used to spray disinfectant were ag drones—drones like those made by XAG, a Chinese company devoted to making drones for agriculture, or like those in DJI’s Agras series, all of which are made for work in agriculture.
A standout feature of these drones is that they’re equipped with sprayers, allowing farmers to get more coverage in a shorter period of time for dispensing pesticides or substances to help their crops grow.
But spraying disinfectant falls under a set of rules established by the FAA for agricultural aircraft operations, as does most of the other kinds of aerial spraying you might want to do for work in agriculture.
These rules are called the FAA’s Part 137 rules. In this article, we’ll cover how to make sure you’re compliant with them if you plan on using drones for spraying.
Here is the step-by-step process to follow to ensure compliance with the Part 137 rules when navigating how to dispense chemicals or agricultural products by drone.
Verify that Your Operation and the Substance You Want to Spray by Drone Fall under the Part 137
According to the Part 137, aircraft operations that do any of the following are considered agricultural:
- Dispensing any substance by air that acts as a pesticide, plant regulator, or defoliant (a blanket phrase for these substances is an economic poison).
- Dispensing any substance by air meant for plant nourishment, soil treatment, propagation of plant life, or pest control.
- Doing any kind of dispensing by air that directly affects agriculture, horticulture, or forest preservation.
Despite this fairly broad list of activities, there are a few exceptions that fall outside the Part 137. For example, dispensing live insects by air does not fall under the Part 137, even if it’s part of an agricultural operation.
“Not all substances fall under this regulation, so you should first check to see if your proposed operation meets the FAA’s criteria for part 137.”
Petition for an Exemption
After confirming that the dispensing you want to do by drone is in fact agricultural, and therefore subject to the Part 137 rules, the next step is to petition the FAA for an exemption from any relevant rules so that you can conduct your operation.
For Drones that Weigh Less than 55 Pounds
To use a drone that weighs less than 55 pounds, including the weight of the substance to be dispensed, you will be seeking exemption from:
- Part 107.36 of the FAA’s Rules for sUAS (i.e., the Part 107 rules), which prohibits using a drone to carry hazardous materials.
- Part 137.41 (c) of the FAA’s Rules for Agricultural Aircraft Operations (i.e., the Part 137 rules), which describes Pilot in Command requirements for aerial agricultural operations that were originally made for crewed aircraft, and therefore don’t apply to drone operations.
For Drones that Weigh More than 55 Pounds
To use a drone that weighs 55 pounds or more, you will be seeking exemption from:
- Part 137.41 (c) of the FAA’s rules for Agricultural Aircraft Operations, which describes Pilot in Command requirements for aerial agricultural operations that were originally made for crewed aircraft, and therefore don’t apply to drone operations.
- Sections of the Part 61 rules on Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors that were originally made for crewed aircraft.
- Sections of the Part 91 General Operating and Flight Rules that were originally made for crewed aircraft.
See these exemption examples for more examples of successful exemption petitions.
How to Petition for an Exemption
Here is the specific information you must include in your exemption request:
- Your name and mailing address and, if you wish, other contact information such as a fax number, telephone number, or e-mail address;
- The specific section or sections of 14 CFR from which you seek an exemption;
- The extent of relief you seek, and the reason you seek the relief;
- The reasons why granting your request would be in the public interest; that is, how it would benefit the public as a whole;
- The reasons why granting the exemption would not adversely affect safety, or how the exemption would provide a level of safety at least equal to that provided by the rule from which you seek the exemption;
- A summary we can publish in the Federal Register, stating:
- The rule from which you seek the exemption; and
- A brief description of the nature of the exemption you seek;
- Any additional information, views or arguments available to support your request; and
- If you want to exercise the privileges of your exemption outside the United States, the reason why you need to do so.
This list of information was taken from the FAA’s guidance on the Part 137.
3. Applying for an Agricultural Aircraft Operator Certificate (AAOC)
After submitting your petition for an exemption, the next step is to apply for an AAOC so you can be certified to fly an aircraft for agricultural purposes.
Before you apply for your AAOC, you must first:
- Have your Part 107 certificate for operating drones commercially in the U.S.
- Have started the exemption process as detailed in the previous section.
To get a Part 137 certificate, you will have to satisfy these five phases of evaluation with the FAA:
1. Preapplication Phase
The first step in the preapplication process is an informal preapplication meeting, in which FAA personnel meet with the applicant and identify the resources they can use to become Part 137 certified.
Though the meeting is informal, you will need to be ready to provide:
- Area of operation.
- Location of home base of operations.
- Location of probable satellite sites.
- Type of operation, private or commercial.
- Economic poisons or other dispensing material.
- Operating as individual, corporation, or partnership.
- Previous experience with part 137 operations.
8/21/17 AC 137-1B
- Category and class of aircraft (helicopter, airplane, or Unmanned Aircraft
- Qualifications and experience of chief supervisor.
- Applicability of parts 61, 91, 107, and 137.
- Disclosure of any previous or pending enforcement action pertaining to the
applicant, management personnel, or chief supervisor.
- Acknowledge the intent to make petition for an exemption for operating UAS
under part 137.
For detailed information on the Preapplication phase, see section 2.3 of this document from the FAA. Section 2.3 begins on page 8 of the document.
2. Formal Application Phase
The formal application begins when you submit your application, initiating a formal review of your application. The final decision will be provided in writing.
For detailed information on the Formal Application phase, see section 2.4 of this document from the FAA. Section 2.4 begins on page 10 of the document.
3. Document Compliance Phase
In this phase, FAA personnel conduct a thorough review of all the documents you have submitted to support your application, including:
- Chief supervisor qualifications for commercial agricultural operators;
- Qualifications and currency requirements for pilots to conduct agricultural aircraft operations;
- Previous letters of competency;
- Copy of the aircraft registration certificate, unless otherwise exempted (or to be exempted);
- Copy of the airworthiness certificate, unless otherwise exempted (or to be exempted);
- An appropriate minimum equipment list (MEL) for the aircraft being used, if applicable;
- Aircraft maintenance documents;
- Inspection of the aircraft determining compliance with § 137.31, unless otherwise exempted;
- UAS operational documents, if applicable (such as exemptions, waivers, or CoAs); and
- UAS registration number (FA number) and serial number of the unmanned aircraft (UA) if noncertificated)
For detailed information on the Document Compliance phase, see section 2.5 of this document from the FAA. Section 2.5 begins on page 11 of the document.
4. Demonstration and Inspection Phase
In this phase, FAA personnel inspect the applicant’s facilities and aircraft (i.e., sUAS) to ensure compliance with the relevant operating procedures.
For drone operations, the applicant must have received a grant of exemption (covered in the previous section above) before the Demonstration and Inspection phase can begin.
For detailed information on the Demonstration and Inspection phase, see section 2.6 of this document from the FAA. Section 2.6 begins on page 12 of the document.
5. Certification Phase
After the certification team concludes that you have met all the qualifications, you are ready to receive your Part 137 certification. Congratulations! You finally made it.
For detailed information on the Certification phase, see section 2.7 of this document from the FAA. Section 2.7 begins on page 21 of the document.