John's World: Wait, I Know That Sound!

March 7, 2014 09:00 PM

You can’t turn a page or click a mouse in the ag media these days without being confronted with the Latest Wave of the Future. Yes, I’m talking about drones.

These must-have techno-gadgets might possibly be named after male bees. Unlike the worker bees that are too busy for romance (sound familiar?), drones are males who lay around idly all day waiting for the chance to, umm … "date" the queen. If you were wondering, there is no equivalent opening for humans, according to my research on

In case you’ve been living on Mars or worse, New Jersey, drones are flying robots that can do all kinds of amazing things on your farm. The long list of amazing things they can do consists of 1) flying in a geometric pattern over your field for up to several minutes carrying a few ounces; and 2) generating video you can post on YouTube.

But something kept itching in the back of my head as I looked at the photos of guys with these six-rotor tiny aircrafts and a joystick control box. It turns out it was only a recurrent dandruff problem, but my point is that it suddenly struck me where I had seen such a picture before: the September 1963 issue of Radio Control Modeler!

Not a big deal. In short, it looks to me like we have rediscovered model airplanes, only without the balsa wood and glue frustration. The biggest differences are prices and the fact that now you can pinpoint to the foot where in the 320-acre field the craft went down. And you won’t have to wait for film to come back from the drugstore. (No, seriously, that’s where photographs used to come from.)

Anyhoo, the media abounds with turgid prose about drones, including this breathless assertion on, a tech website: "Drones will revolutionize agriculture first, not deli­very." Oh, really?

Let’s see, on one hand, you have the Amazon billionaire who can deploy drones with a slight nod, and on the other, a farmer still using a John Deere 4430 tractor when it can barely do the job because he just can’t bear to part with it. Where do you see drone-makers focusing their sales efforts?

This "revolution" will be pretty low-key, I would guess. Right now, drones are really more of an answer looking desperately for a question.

The Capt. Kirk mantra. I think I know where this obsession originates. For those of us who still move our electric toothbrush like a manual one, the vision of this time in history was formed by powerful images from the Dark Ages (pre-1970). For example, we wanted a communicator such as Capt. Kirk’s. Don’t tell me that isn’t a flip-phone he uses to get beamed up.

We wanted monorails, the obliga­tory icon of The Future. We got them, but we should have specified that they run between cities, not theme parks.

But most of all we wanted "The Jetson’s" flying cars—little saucery vehicles with clear domes that flipped open like a lighter. (Jan just pointed out this comparison needs explanation for younger readers. Cigarette lighters were small metallic oblongs filled with flammable liquids and a sparking apparatus that men carried in their front pants pockets, which might not have been wise, but it was cool.)

Where was I? The flying car was not just expected by the 21st century—it was bundled into our plans. By now, the U.S. airways should be swarming with millions of flying cars zipping around randomly.

So where’s my flying car? This frustration, I believe, is the core of the current determination to make drones into Real Things.

Despite the fact that the military has discovered it can substitute pasty nerds with joysticks in front of multiple monitors for overly macho jet jockeys in unaffordable planes, it would be a breach of rural etiquette to have a drone "neutralize" the obnoxious cash-rent hustler who is making your farm community miserable. Wouldn’t it? (I am willing to change my mind on this, by the way.)

Regardless, I think the rush to embrace drones has produced a cadre of fans whose enthusiastic hyping of this tiny step for man is becoming a mildly exasperating background whine. Hey—maybe that’s where the name actually comes from!

What do you get when you cross the intellect of an engineer, the heart of a farmer and the charm of a TV host? The ever-witty John Phipps. Contact John:




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