From the Battle Field to the Corn Field

By Patrick Demkovich. For a long time, the term “drone” had a connotation of violence, seen only as an instrument to end life. Over the past year though, as the applications of the technology diversify, the word leaves the tongue without such a bitter taste.

American farmers are now eager to put this high tech tool to work on the homeland. As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) loosens restrictions on the commercial market, the possibilities for farmers are literally taking off.

The small, relatively inexpensive vehicles assist humans in a variety of ways around large farms, like transmitting detailed information about crops, accurately directing the problem areas, and cutting down on the amount of water and chemicals that a farmer needs to use in those spots.

The data collected by drones can be pictures, 3D images of plants, thermal readings of crops or animals or other observations that can be made by air. In the past, information that may have taken days to collect can now be gathered in minutes or hours. In some cases this information can be integrated with separate data collected from other high-tech farm machinery.

It is now common practice to blanket entire fields with chemicals. With drones being able to pick out problem areas so precisely, it will be transformative to the agriculture industry, who will be able to limit spraying to just those areas. With how quickly these machines are advancing, it is not beyond belief that someday they will be able to apply needed chemicals to each individual plant.

The FAA approved more than 50 exemptions for farm-related operations since the beginning of the year. Many companies have been helped by the advances in this technology and witnessed growth in their business in this short time. Still, most farmers cannot legally fly the vehicles yet.

The FAA is working on rules that would allow the drones to be used regularly for business, while maintaining certain safety and privacy standards. An FAA proposal this year would allow flight of the vehicles as long as they weigh less than 55 pounds, stay within the operator’s sight and fly during the daytime. Operators would have to pass an FAA test of aeronautical knowledge and a Transportation Security Administration background check.

The future of drone use with agriculture is evolving. It's uncertain whether farmers hire services that have unmanned aerial vehicles or every farm get its own drone. Time will tell.

Until then, we will just have to keep watching the skies.