Agriculture may be the most promising industry for the commercial use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or drones.
Most Americans are curious to learn more about Amazon’s proposal to use self-guided drones to deliver packages, but the most successful use of commercial drones in the United States may take place in areas far from the country’s highly populated centers. The Bradenton Herald reports that Idaho farmer Robert Blair built his version of a drone, equipped with cameras, to monitor his 1,500 acres. The 10-pound, 5-feet long drone is the size of a turkey and is used to get a birds-eye view of the farm’s cows, fields of wheat, peas, barley, and alfalfa. Blair said the drone provides him with a complete, aerial view of his farm, to gather historical data on his crops, which can help validate crop loss or animal damage when applying for government programs like crop insurance.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits drones for commercial use, although businesses and researchers can apply for an experimental airworthiness certificate for research and development, flight demonstrations, or crew training. Public law enforcement agencies and other governmental agencies may acquire a certificate of authorization to operate drones in civil airspace, but the move has raised concerns about privacy and government surveillance. The public’s concerns have led to privacy bills in many states, limiting the use of drones used by law enforcement. As fewer law enforcement agencies show interest in drones due to public backlash, leading drone manufacturers and researchers have decided to focus on agriculture. “A small UAV flying over a field with nothing around it doesn’t create a privacy issue,” said Josh Brungardt, director of unmanned systems at PARADIGM, an Oregon-based drone research company.
The Herald notes that drones can be effective for the agriculture sector because they pose fewer privacy and safety issues in the vast rural areas where farms are located. Farmers, researchers, and companies are developing drones equipped with cameras and sensors to survey crops, monitor for disease, or precision-spray pesticides and fertilizers. Beyond monitoring, drones can be used to ward off birds from fields, pollinate trees, monitor irrigation, or plant and harvest crops. The essence of drones in agriculture is that the technology could reduce costs and increase yields for farmers. Along with private companies, universities have begun to research and develop drone technology. Oregon State University researchers used drones earlier this summer to monitor disease over potato fields. Oregon nurseries have collaborated with researchers to use drones to count plotted trees. Farmers and researchers in Florida have used drones equipped with infrared cameras to monitor orange trees for the citrus greening, a bacterial diseases that kills trees, beginning at the top of the tree. The University of California, Davis has teamed up with Yamaha Motor Corp. to use drones to spray vineyards and orchards.