FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – As federal officials weigh new rules for drones, Kentucky's economy and its farmers stand to benefit from the controversial unmanned aircraft technology, a researcher told state lawmakers this week.

A report released last year estimated the economic impact of drone-related activity in the state at $537 million over the next decade, including more than $5 million in new tax revenue and hundreds of jobs.

“The immediate envisioned benefit for farming is for scouting,” Suzanne Weaver Smith, a University of Kentucky mechanical engineering professor, said Wednesday during a meeting of the General Assembly's interim joint committee on agriculture.

Smith, director of UK's Unmanned Systems Research Consortium, said drones could aid farmers surveying trouble in their fields – from the start of an infestation to a quick survey of hail damage.

“Having even a low-altitude aerial view really gives you a perspective that allows a farmer to see changes in the field,” she said.

Drone use is currently limited in the U.S. to activities such NASA weather missions and university research, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Smith said UK has been flying research drones for “remote sensing” – estimating yields and evaluating soil, for example -- for 12 years.

The FAA agreed last month to allow six film-industry and television companies to fly drones legally. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the move a “significant milestone” in broadening commercial drone use.

While drone use for farming is outlawed, Smith said “a lot of people are ignoring that.” Farmers had hoped that the FAA would permit agricultural-related drone flights under rules for model airplane enthusiasts, but the agency stopped short of allowing farm uses this summer.

The FAA is expected to release new rules governing small drones later this year, with final rules possible by late 2015, Smith said.

As of September 25, there were 40 requests for exemptions similar to the ones granted to the film companies, according to the FAA. (Agriculture uses are among those seeking the exemptions, according to Smith's research.)

Kentucky hasn't enacted drone-related laws, which have passed in neighboring Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee and 16 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Kentucky is among 35 states that considered such measures this year.

A bill introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly earlier this year would have banned police departments and other law enforcement agencies in Kentucky from using drones to collect evidence without first obtaining a warrant, but allowed them for rescue operations and other activities.

Businesses, colleges and universities would have been permitted to fly drones under the measure, which stalled in a House committee. One of the bill's sponsors, Republican Rep. Diane St. Onge of Lakeside Park, has pre-filed the bill for the 2015 session.

Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said she is considering similar legislation. She said during Wednesday's meeting that she has concerns with how private operators may use drones to gather information.

“I've got a little bit of a problem with that and the potential harassment of law-abiding hunters, anglers, trappers” and farmers, she said.

“I just think this is an issue that's here, that we're going to have to deal with and we need to talk a lot more about.”

Reporter Marcus Green can be reached at (502) 585-0825 or on Twitter @MarcusGreenWDRB.

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