Flying high above the fields, a small machine with cameras attached glides over crops, taking measurements for growth, health, and irrigation. Instead of doing all the crop surveys on the ground themselves, farmers can sit back and let the data pour into a central computer, where they can analyze the data and make more informed operational decisions for their businesses. This could be a world with commercial agriculture drones.
Drones are becoming more popular for a number of purposes and various industries. Some forecasts predict that the commercial drone industry could create 100,000 new jobs and generate $82 billion in economic development in the first 10 years. But due to citizen concerns and lack of FAA regulations, that industry has been nearly stopped in its tracks.
For the most part, drones can’t be used for commercial purposes, though that is slowly changing as Congress, the drone industry, and companies who want to use drones are putting more pressure on the FAA. The agency has received 214 requests for exemptions from commercial entities, but until recently, the FAA had only granted 12 exemptions to 11 companies in the oil and gas, filmmaking, landfill, and a few other industries. Now it seems that the agriculture industry’s drone fleet may be next.
Benefits of commercial agriculture drones
If drones are approved, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that 80% of commercial drones will be used for agriculture. This is due to drones’ versatility in meeting farmers’ varied needs for crop surveying, measurements, sampling, and security, among other potential uses.
Aviation has long been used in agriculture, but it’s come at a price — at times, up to $1,000 an hour or more. Drones, however, offer a much more cost-effective option. They can be made somewhat inexpensively, and some companies would be able to offer drones for as little as $1,000 or less. This would allow farmers to save money they could then reinvest in their farms and equipment.
The perspective farmers can get using drones offers a new way for farmers to look at their crops and determine what they can do to make the crops healthier and increase yields. According to MIT Technology Review, “Compared with satellite imagery, [a drone is] much cheaper and offers higher resolution. Because it’s taken under the clouds, it’s unobstructed and available anytime.” These drones must operate at a ceiling of 120 meters in the U.S. unless given special clearance from the FAA, but this is usually enough to provide farmers with a substantial amount of information.
Food Manufacturing recently reported a number of possible uses for agriculture drones. Scouting drones enable farmers to know when crops are properly irrigated, diseased, or overrun with pests. Drones could also help farmers count the number of plants in a crop and measure their heights. Drones can carry certain tools, such as infrared or thermal sensors and high-resolution cameras, as well as disperse chemicals, such as more targeted spraying of herbicides in one section of a crop. Farmers could find roaming, runaway cattle by using drones, which is a much more time-saving and cost-effective option. Drones can also measure schools of fish by seeing through water or even land on water to test its quality.
According to Precision Drone, a company that produces drones for a number of industries, drones also offer benefits such as time savings, higher return on investment, ease of us, integrated GIA mapping, and crop health imaging, among others.
Other countries that do allow commercial agriculture drones have seen positive results. In Japan, autonomous helicopters spray a majority of farmland, preventing the adverse health effects caused by crop dusting. Dutch farmers have boosted yields by 50% while conserving water and fertilizer through use of drones. The U.S. could potentially see these and other results once commercial agriculture drones are approved en masse by the FAA.
Commercial agriculture drones receive FAA approval
In a landmark decision from the FAA, Empire Unmanned, an agriculture drone manufacturer, was the first agriculture company to receive an FAA Section 333 Exemption to fly commercial UAV missions over farmers’ fields across the country in 2015. The exemption will have to be renewed in 2016.
Empire hopes to begin making first commercial flights as early as March or April of this year, and the company intends to work with “everybody we can, from individual growers to agribusinesses to Universities,” says Empire Unmanned’s Robert Blair. The company will use “a fixed-wing eBee Ag UAS to make photographic measurements and perform crop scouting for precision agriculture,” says the FAA’s press release.
This decision has opened the doors for U.S. commercial agriculture drone producers who may see similar results in the future — if the FAA can pass regulations while assuaging consumers’ concerns.
Concerns about drones are part of the delay
One issue holding commercial drones back is concerns about privacy and safety. According to a recent Associated Press poll, “Only 21% favored commercial use of drones, compared with 43% opposed. Another 35% were in the middle.”
Americans worry that camera-mounted drones, like those that would be used to survey crops, could violate privacy by recording people without their knowledge. Also, drones pose safety concerns due to the possibility of interference with air traffic as well as the possibility that they can run into or drop onto people, power lines, homes, and so on.
With both promising results and citizens’ concerns in mind, the FAA has been working toward a solution for commercial drones. However, according to Inc., “FAA officials had said they hoped to propose regulations to permit general commercial use of small drones by the end of 2014, but that deadline has slipped.”
Now with the introduction of the first commercial agriculture drones, farmers, agribusinesses, and universities can either participate or await the results to see just how big the agriculture drone industry may get in the coming years.