The Good and Bad of Agricultural Drones

The Good and Bad of Agricultural Drones

Using Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) has spurred quite the controversy. Many in ag support it, saying it could take precision agriculture to the next level, while some are a little more cautious, fearing what it could mean for the big data battle. In this Farm Journal Report, we explore both sides of the issue, but as you’ll see, the legal aspect is still cloudy, and one the drone industry hopes is cleared up this year.

Drone. UAV. UAS. No matter the name, some think this eye in the sky could revolutionize the future of farming.

“NDVI is only a starting point,” says Bret Chilcott, Owner of an agricultural UAS company called AgEagle. ‘”There will be thermal imaging done, topographical imaging done, the sky is the limit.”

Kansas based AgEagle says in the beginning, they underestimated the demand from farmers for ag drones.

“Not only are we starting a company, but we’re starting an industry,” he says. “This is an entire industry that’s about to explode.”

In a small vineyard in the Napa Valley, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is being used for crop fertilization and pest control, only as a test.

“So, we’re understanding how to use that capability: what’s the best use for this technology, what are the limitations, what are the advantages,” explains Dr. Ken Giles, Agricultural Engineer at University of California-Davis.

With the help of GPS, UAVs can map an entire farm, find pests or dry soil, and relay exact coordinates for attention. The potential for commercial drones may be enormous; streamlining costs, cutting risky jobs, but the legality surrounding this complex system is still in question. One legal expert says as it stands today, using a drone in commercial agriculture is illegal.

“The FAA’s position, as of the end of 2014, was you can’t use these for commercial purposes,” says Roger McEowen, Director of Iowa State’s Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation. “So, you can use it for your garden in your backyard, as long as you’re not selling the stuff out of your garden at the local roadside stand, but you can’t use them for commercial purposes.”

McEowen knows this is contrary to popular belief.

“It’s a big issue in the ag industry, as well as real estate companies that like to use drones to take pictures of farmland to put in their brochures,” he says. “Technically, you can’t do that.”

The drone industry is anxiously waiting for FAA to modernize the current regulations on the technology. Congress instructed the agency to finalize those by the end of September, but some speculate this could be pushed back to 2017 due to various delays.

In the meantime, some agricultural groups are asking the FAA for an exemption. Just in early January, the Administration granted two section 33 exemptions for UAVs: One to a Washington-based agriculture company using the system for precision ag purposes.

This isn’t the first exemption in agriculture. In early December, Trimble received approval to fly its drone to collect data, as opposed to traditional surveying and mapping.

Even with a permit in hand, companies still must obtain a commercial pilot’s license and have a spotter.

While many are lobbying FAA to ease restrictions on the technology, some fear it could also backfire, being used against agriculture.

A recent YouTube video shows privacy issues with drones are already popping up. The individual, who says he’s film maker, is taking video of confined animal feeding operations, but without owners’ permission. He admits he’s been secretly planning a project since 2012 to expose “factory farms,” and he’s doing so by using “the highest tech spy equipment available: drones.” He goes on to say farms don’t exist anymore, as animals Americans eat are grown in hidden factories. The filmmaker also makes it clear it’s Smithfield he’s targeting with his claims.

Legal or not, drones are already in high demand.

“The biggest thing we provide to farmers is a chance for the first time is to have an overall view of their field like they are a personal airplane which can be an investment,” says Tom Nichol, Business Development with AgEagle.