The good, bad and ugly of unmanned aerials
More forward-thinking farmers are dabbling with small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—or drones—for a multitude reasons. For Donavon Taves, it all started because of the bears.
That’s right—black bears roaming the Louisiana countryside have a tendency to step on or occasionally bite through Taves’ poly pipe irrigation. It was easy enough to fix, but it was time-intensive to check his fields daily for the recurring problem.
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Taves fitted his small hexacopter (six rotors) with a camera and programmed it to fly over the poly pipe. Each morning, he sits down with a cup of coffee and reviews the footage so he knows which poly pipes to patch before he leaves the house. Problem solved.
"There are so many great ideas to explore using this technology," he says. "They are easy-to-fly work toys. A quick look at fields from 300' up can help identify lodging and wind damage issues and help you make decisions regarding field harvest order. Return on investment comes very quickly."
Taves emphasizes the importance of responsible use, which primarily means don’t fly the drone over your neighbor’s fields. Be mindful of limiting factors such as battery life, which typically is 20 minutes or less.
Matt McCrink, a Ph.D. student with The Ohio State University, says that UAVs have numerous other potential uses in production agriculture. Drones can also be used for monitoring and recording plant health, water usage and pesticide dispersal.
"This will allow for the creation of a historical database, which farmers might use to project future crop yields and soil health," McCrink says.
Awareness—and scrutiny—for drone technology have grown side by side. Interest has skyrocketed since the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said that the agriculture industry would be the biggest benefactor of UAV use, says Rory Paul, CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics.
"My phone has been ringing off the hook since then," Paul says. If farmers could use UAVs to capture just 1% more efficient operations or just 1% more yields, "you’re talking about billions of dollars," he says.
But the technology is not without its critics. Most consumers were introduced to drones as weapons of war, not as farm scouting tools. Public outcry varies, but some pockets have generated heated debate about civilian spying and other potential privacy concerns. The citizens of Deer Trail, Colo., will even vote this fall whether the town can issue "drone hunting licenses," which would allow the townsfolk to shoot down drones and collect $100 bounties for their efforts.
There’s also the matter of legality, or possible lack thereof.
Most UAV operators follow 1981 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines for recreational model planes. Under these guidelines, a UAV can’t fly higher than 400' and must stay away from airports and other "sensitive" areas such as schools and hospitals.
However, these guidelines were never meant to govern on-farm UAV usage. They are only for recreational use, which currently excludes commercial use by individuals or companies. Congress has directed the FAA to address commercial UAV use no later than September 2015.
"What this means is literally thousands of people are breaking the law, including farmers surveying their own fields with their own aircraft," says Tom McKinnon, managing director of InventWorks. "But, as a practical matter, the FAA has only issued a handful of cease-and-desist orders to operators who were flying extremely dangerously. The FAA has bigger fish to fry, so there would never be a ruling against a farmer operating a UAV responsibly."
Next steps. InventWorks is developing technology to marry drones with GPS mapping software to pinpoint individual weeds in a field and create precision prescriptions for incredibly targeted herbicide applications. The same process could potentially identify insect pests, disease, crop nutrient deficiencies, soil moisture issues and more, McKinnon says.
"Farmers are embracing technology for cost savings and to increase yield and profit," he adds. "We’re working on this technology now to make it intuitive to use and value-driven by the time it can be used commercially."
For Taves, who is mindful of current FAA guidelines, the only other concern is the learning curve, and he says it hasn’t been an issue at all.
For a couple thousand dollars and minimal training, any farmer can go airborne and reap the benefits from seeing their crops from a new angle, Taves says.