Jump over the site's section navigation.

Ag Drones Taking Off

Tue, 25 Mar 2014 14:14:36 CDT
By: Harvest Public Media's Peter Grey

Ag Drones Taking Off
Tech-savvy farmers have been waiting for years for the government to make up its mind about the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Will 2014 be the year farmers get their hands on drones? Harvest Public Media's Peter Gray has this report.


Harvest Public Media is a collaboration of WUIS in Springfield and other Midwest public radio stations, focusing on food, farming and fuel. You can find more stories at Harvest Public Media.

Agriculture consultant Chad Colby likes to talk about cutting edge technology. He runs AgTechTalk.com and teaches about the "latest and the greatest" advances available to farmers: Including the quadcopters he's brought for test flights today.
"So now it starts beeping, that's all good, so now let's go inside..."

After a safety lesson, farmers who've paid to hear Colby's tech talk each get a turn at the controls... zipping up and down, spinning and swooping.
"It's so exciting to see that look in these guys' faces after they fly it that, 'Wow, this is easy, and I can do it. And OH MY do I get to see my crop in a different perspective.'"

They may be fun, but unmanned aerial vehicles - UAVs - are serious business for farmers who absolutely must check for pest or weather damage, like Jared Brown of Beason.
"I've been a seed dealer and involved in precision ag, and I look at this from a scouting standpoint. Getting farmers out in their field, knowing what's going on in their field I think would have a huge benefit."

Farmers with acres and acres of land want to keep an eye on their investment. Instead of spending days driving the edges of fields in a truck or ATV, drone-mounted cameras can use thermal image maps to tell if crops aren't properly irrigated or if they are being eaten by insects. The same rugged yet inexpensive video cameras strapped to surfboards and skydivers can gather the visuals farmers need for a fraction of what they'd pay to hire a plane or helicopter pilot. Mark Sullivan is in his early 20s and is on the tech-savvy end of farmers. He says drones fit right in with recent innovations designed to get as much out of a field as possible:
"The yield monitors are getting better, and the planters are getting more accurate and the tractors are getting more efficient. You know everything is developing on its own, but you don't have true precision ag in its fullest form until you use all of them."

Of course there are plenty of privacy and public safety concerns when it comes to camera-mounted machines flying around. That's why anyone flying a drone for business instead of as a hobby is actually breaking federal law. The Federal Aviation Administration is still working on rules for the commercial use of UAVs. But for now, they're grounded. Ben Gielow is with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.
"We have been trying to work with the FAA to allow for some expedited access. And we've pointed to rural farms as a great area where some limited operations could happen very soon, if not immediately."

And an FAA spokesman told me there will be a rule out THIS YEAR for commercial use of small UAVs.   But he say's FAA's rulemaking for a potentially risky technology like this is slow and deliberate. The farmers who have been waiting years to get their hands on drones would agree.
"I applaud the FAA."
That's ag consultant Chad Colby again.
"They need to do this correct. Because there's nothing I want more than safe airspace. You know, I'm a pilot, I want privacy over my home."

Colby is looking forward; to a future in which commodity farmers can fly over their fields. They'll be able to cut down on fertilizer by targeting the specific areas that need it most. Or plant different crop varieties based on moisture levels. He says having safely piloted "eyes in the sky" will make precision ag really take off in years to come. But if a grower wants to buy a small drone and camera to buzz over fields of corn or beans, they better make sure it's for pleasure and not for a profit - at least for the next several months.

(photo credit: Harvest Public Media)


Support Your Public Radio Station