Live

Watch CBSN Live

Feds give farmers rare approval to spray crops from drones

FRESNO, Calif. -- A drone large enough to carry tanks of fertilizers and pesticides has won rare approval from federal authorities to spray crops in the United States, officials said.

The drone, called the RMAX, is a remotely piloted helicopter that weighs 207 pounds, said Steve Markofski, a spokesman for Yamaha Corp. U.S.A., which developed the aircraft.

Smaller drones weighing a few pounds had already been approved for limited use to take pictures that help farmers identify unhealthy crops. The RMAX is the first time a drone big enough to carry a payload has been approved, Markofski said.

The drone already has been used elsewhere, including by rice farmers in Japan. The FAA approved it for the U.S. on Friday.

"I certainly understand their cautious approach," Markofski said. "It's a daunting task given our airspace is complicated."

The drone is best suited for precision spraying on California's rolling vineyards and places that are hard to reach from the ground or with larger, piloted planes, said Ken Giles, professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of California, Davis. Giles tested the drone in California to see if it could be used here.

"A vehicle like this gives you a way to get in and get out and get that treatment done," Giles said.

Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in a statement that the approval highlights other potential uses.

"The FAA is taking an important step forward to helping more industries in the U.S. realize the benefits (drone) technology has to offer," he said.

Meanwhile, the FAA on Wednesday announced it was partnering with three U.S. companies in a bid to determine how to safely expand unmanned aircraft operations. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the FAA would be partnering with CNN, PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railroad.

"CNN will be researching how visual line-of-sight operations might be used for newsgathering in urban areas. PrecisionHawk, a manufacturer, will be surveying crops in rural areas using unmanned aircraft flying outside of the pilot's direct vision. BNSF Railroad will explore the challenges of using these vehicles to inspect their rail infrastructure beyond visual line-of-sight in isolated areas," Huerta said.

View CBS News In