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Local News

In Grundy County, drones are becoming the farmer's latest machinery

DWIGHT – Ask someone about farm machinery, and the image conjured often is of a bright-green John Deere tractor or a large red Case IH combine.

Rarely would one consider a small unmanned aircraft such as the Phantom Drone.

However, Matt Boucher of Dwight knows how much an unmanned aerial vehicle – more commonly referred to as a drone – can benefit a farmer.

“They are great for crop scouting,” Boucher, a farmer and drone dealer, said Wednesday from his rural Dwight farm. “You can look at live video coming back from the drone, and if the crop doesn’t look right, you can go straight to the area of concern.”

Boucher said with more people purchasing drones, it’s important they are aware of regulations in place. One regulation that went into effect Dec. 21 requires all owners of drones weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds to register online before taking to the skies.

Another is that if a UAV is flown within 5 miles of an airport or helipad, the operator of the aircraft has to provide the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower with notice of the operation prior to sending the drone into the air.

The Federal Aviation Administration allows airport personnel to deny a person’s request to fly if they believe the activity impacts the safety of other airport operations.

Know where airports are

The 5-mile rule applies to all airports, public or private, and heliports, including corporate and hospital, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said in an email.

Interactive maps outlining the 5-mile radii surrounding U.S. airports have popped up all over the Internet. Software used in the operation of a drone also has maps letting users know if they are in the 5-mile area. The FAA has a smartphone application called B4UFLY – a mapping system that shows a person’s exact location and airport locations to determine where drone users can fly.

Boucher said the 5-mile rule brings more questions than answers.

“The biggest problem is, if it’s a private airstrip, who do you contact?” he said.

While most people know where a larger airport is, such as the Morris Municipal Airport, they don’t realize there are many private strips on privately owned land, and those strips are included in the rule. Depending on which website you search, there are anywhere from six to nearly 20 airports and helipads, the 5-mile radii of which is over Grundy County.

In Grundy County there are two registered helipads, one at Morris Hospital and Healthcare Centers’ main campus and one at Dresden Nuclear Power Station, which are included in the 5-mile rule.

Jeff Vogen, manager of the Morris Municipal Airport, said staff there haven’t received any calls requesting to fly a drone within the 5-mile rule of the airport, but he expects that to change as weather gets nicer.

“We will review each call on a case-by-case basis when they come in,” he said. “Until the FAA gets a definitive set of rules, it puts people like myself – as well as drone users – at a disadvantage.”

Sid Nelson, an aerial application pilot from Morris who has worked in the agriculture industry for a number of years, said any private or public airport is required to be registered with the state of Illinois, so farmers looking to call should be able to find a contact number online.

He admits, however, that an ultra-light aircraft pilot may have a strip and isn’t required to register it, meaning there could be unexpected aircraft in some areas. He said some strictly agriculture landing strips also might not be registered.

“I think they need to clarify ‘private,’ ” Nelson said.

Nelson said he feels the FAA had to put restrictions on the drones quickly because the popularity of the UAVs grew rapidly over the past couple of years.

“The use of drones came on so fast and caused so many problems they had to do something until they can figure out how to control them,” Nelson said.

Cost-effective for crops

For farmers, drones can conduct an important task in a timely manner. Boucher said that before drone technology, the only way a farmer could see what was going on in a field was to walk it, which can take hours, or hire an airplane, which is costly.

While the initial cost of a drone is significant – Boucher has one that cost $4,000 – it becomes more reasonable when it’s averaged out by the number of acres it can survey.

“If you have a 1,000-acre farm, the cost is $4 an acre to have the aerial view. If you use it more than once, it drops the cost even lower,” he said.

Nelson, perhaps because he works in the agriculture industry, said he can see the benefit of the drone being used by a farmer, but as a pilot he also knows there is a real concern.

“If we have a midair collision with a drone and it damages my prop or my engine, who is going to pay that?” Nelson said.

He said aerial application planes can cost between $750,000 and $1.5 million. The propeller and jet engines used to operate are equally expensive to replace.

Boucher and Nelson both said they don’t want to have the added expense of fixing or replacing their different aircraft, so learning to safely share airspace is the answer.

“From Day 1, especially as a drone dealer, I’ve seen what goes on with people who have no experience,” Boucher said. “If anyone is going to fly a drone commercially, they should have a license just like you do to drive a car.”

Boucher said he’s not sure registration, which is now required of UAVs, or licensing will be the end of what needs to be done – but he believes it’s a step in the right direction.

He said he has to have a license to spray chemicals on his crop, and a separate commercial license to spray his neighbor’s crop, so he doesn’t see why having a license to use a drone commercially in the agriculture industry should be any different.

Nelson said his concern isn’t the local farmer who is using a drone to check his crops – his concern lies more with the young kid or hobbyist who gets it and thinks it would be fun to fly alongside an airplane and get video, which he said has happened and caused concern among pilots.

According to FAA reports, in June 2015 there was a UAV reported in Coal City that required an airplane pilot in the nearby airspace to perform eva

“The farmer, I would hope, would see a spray plane and put the drone down,” Nelson said. “I can’t speak for other pilots, but that is how I feel.”

Boucher said he can’t imagine an agricultural user not putting the drone down when a spray plane is in the area. He also pointed out that most aerial applications happen in a short time in the summer, and farmers know when they will be flying in the area spraying.

Both Boucher an d Nelson expect regulations to become better defined this year, so drone users understand their responsibility when sharing the airspace with a large aircraft.

• Shaw Media reporter Lauren Leone-Cross contributed to this report.



• Fly no higher than 400 feet and remain below any surrounding obstacles when possible.

• Keep your UAV in eyesight at all times, and use an observer to assist if needed.

• Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations. You must see and avoid other aircraft and obstacles at all times.

• Do not intentionally fly over unprotected people or moving vehicles. Remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property.

• Contact the airport or control tower before flying within 5 miles of that facility.

• Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility.

• Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

• Ensure the operating environment is safe and that the operator is competent and proficient in the operation of the UAV.

• Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property, such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, etc.

• Check and follow all local laws and ordinances before flying over private property.

• Do not conduct surveillance or photograph people in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission.

Source: Federal Aviation Administration


• Morris Municipal Airport – 815-942-1600

• Dwight Airport – 815-584-2486

• Curanda Airport – 815-287-2213

• Hope Field – 815-634-8992

• Dresden Nuclear Station, Robert Osgood – 815-416-3743

• Howard Heliport – 815-357-6565

• Morris Hospital – 815-942-2932

Source: Federal Aviation Administration

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