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Technology editor Ben Potter brings you the latest in technology news, and how you can apply it to farming.


Send in the Drones?

Feb 06, 2013

Ronald Reagan once famously asked the U.N. General Assembly, "Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace?"

The idea is not a new one. Reagan was referencing a biblical idea that’s been around for several thousand years. But the idea keeps resurfacing as new military technology finds its way into everyday life.

The latest speculation surrounds the controversial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are better known as Predator and Reaper drones. These machines have the purpose of finding and killing, but some people have envisioned a more peaceful future after they return from overseas duties. Farmers in particular would find all manner of useful applications in their operations, Chris Mailey recently told Wired magazine.

"Agriculture is gonna be the big market," he says.

Mailey is vice president of an organization called the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The group’s mission is "advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community through education, advocacy and leadership," and it has a bit to say about farming. In particular, the group speculates that UAVs could prevent nearly 3,000 accidental farm deaths over the next decade.

Universities are getting involved, too. At Ohio State University’s Farm Science Review show last fall, the OSU Aeronautics and Astronautics Research Laboratory showcased UAV technology. Matt McCrink, a Ph.D. student with OSU, says UAV has many potential uses in agriculture.

"The data gathered in these pilot programs will be instrumental in the development of regulations and commercialization of drone technology, which could significantly impact the cost of crop production," McCrink says. "In addition, monitoring and recording plant health, water usage, and pesticide dispersal will allow for the creation of a historical database, which farmers might use to project future crop yields and soil health."

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration does not allow UAVs to operate in national airspace. Even so, the FAA has granted special certifications for OSU and and other public institutions to test whether UAVs can be integrated safely into national airspace.

As an inventor, the military has a pretty solid track record, delivering technologies such as microwaves, digital cameras, GPS and even the Internet. Even something as innocent as the facial tissue has a military origin - it was first developed in an attempt to develop better gas mask filter membranes.

So while it may seem strange now, UAVs could be commonplace on the farm someday. What other technologies do you think will help shape the future of farming?