Farmers using unmanned aerial vehicles on their farms - for personal non-commercial use below 400 feet to check out crops and cattle - already see the value of these tools. They know it's possible to check on the crop yield before combines roll, make sure pivots are working properly even when corn is 8-feet tall, and find cattle when they stray from the herd.
It would be great, however, if the consultant could come to the farm and fly the crop to gather data and help with decision making. Can't happen, that's a commercial use. However, the Federal Aviation Administration is at work on the issue. Recently, the agency issued two permits for land-related uses. One is for a true ag use and the other for a real estate company that wants to take better videos to sell properties and tracts of land.
Advanced Aviation Solutions in Idaho will be able to operate drones for customers to gather crop data and create maps and information farmers in that part of the country can use. It's a first step in what will be a long process. Of course, the rules surrounding the exemption might surprise some - FAA requires that the operator have a pilot's license and that there is second observer on site at all times. The drone must be flown "line of sight" so it must always be visible during operation. And it can't be operated near airspace where planes may fly.
Yet Advanced is gearing up to be the first in the nation to operate with FAA approval. It's a start.
In Illinois, Munson Hybrids has donated a drone to Western Illinois University so students there can learn the ins-and-outs of working these remote-controlled machines. It's an opportunity for those students to get in on the ground floor of what should be a pretty valuable opportunity for the future.
Ag Eagle, a drone maker from Kansas, keeps pushing away to get ready for this big potential market. They were profiled in UAS Magazine. The company makes a 'wing UAV' which flies a field in a predetermined pattern and lands. They were at last summer's Precision Aerial Ag Show in Decatur, Ill., and got plenty of attention not only for their bird, but their software that can stitch all that information together.
A television station caught up with a student Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa who is totally sold on the value of drones. He's majoring in ag business and minoring in computer science, seems like the perfect degree for a future UAV user. His enthusiasm for the technology shows just how these tools could help farmers in the future.
The Iowa student may also be interested in advice given to Iowa lawmakers looking at drone regulations. Turns out they're being told to sit back and wait and see how the technology develops. The news comes in a report from the Iowa Department of Public Safety advising lawmakers in that state to explore options as the technology develops rather than potentially passing laws that could hinder the fledgling industry before it gets started.
And what does it take to fly a drone commercially? I touched on a few above, but the folks at GPS World lay it out in much more detail. It's not daunting...really. But it's worth checking out.
And finally, and it's a concern I've already seen expressed, but Chuck Jolley writing at Feedstuffs Foodlink does a solid job of outlining the issues on a more concrete scale: what about non-friendly-to-ag folks getting drones. Jolley points to the threat of a new anti-ag 'air force' and what it might mean. Check out his stats on another side of the drone scene - the dark side.
Wherever this technology ends up the limited uses we've seen so far have shown some - if not all - farmers there's value. Just think how valuable it might be to know your crop yield two to three weeks before the combines roll. Not everyone can plug that information into a risk management program, but some will.
Technology advances bring along both positive and negative outcomes. I'm still hoping for mostly positive results from the use of UAVs.