Drones Provide a Bird's Eye View

Drones are poised to have a major impact on farm production as a relatively inexpensive way to monitor crops.
Drones Provide a Bird's Eye View
If you’re not involved with drone technology now, you probably will be soon. Agricultural sources familiar with them agree that drones—also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—will become a common sight on farms in the future.

“I liken it to the early days of precision agriculture when yield monitors were first used,” says Chris Blome, an Alden, Iowa, farmer, Syngenta Seed Advisor™ and owner of Premier Technologies. “Fast forward 15 or 20 years from those early days, and almost every combine has a yield monitor plus GPS and guidance. I think drones are on the leading edge of technology, and in five to 10 years, we will see them everywhere.”

Small, agile drones are a much cheaper way to survey crops and gather images than using aircraft or satellites—and faster than scouting fields on foot. Drone images are usually high quality and can provide precise details about crops with geo-referencing. Ag Connections is currently working toward incorporating the ability to export drone-obtained pictures into its Land.db® farm management software, available from the Syngenta AgriEdge Excelsior® program. Upon integration into the software, this capability will offer growers yet another layer of information for farm data analysis to help improve crop yields.

Expectations are high for the potential economic impact of drones in agriculture. Analysts anticipate that drones—along with all the accompanying equipment and software—will generate 100,000 jobs in the U.S. and $82 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2025, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research report published last fall.

FAA Regulations Apply

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently issued its final regulations for commercial use of drones. These FAA regulations divide drone users into “Fly for Fun” and “Fly for Work” categories. Based on these rules, the FAA considers most drone use on a farm as Fly for Work, which may surprise some growers who own drones.

“It’s a good idea for growers to become knowledgeable about drone technology now, because it’s reasonably priced and familiarity will help them keep up with the technology as it continues to evolve.”

Ernie Chilcott
“FAA has taken a position that using drones for checking on farm fields is a commercial purpose and requires registered aircraft and licensed operators,” says John Dillard, attorney at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.

Fortunately, the new regulations don’t require a pilot’s license to operate a drone for work. Instead, the FAA is requiring a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate, which requires passing an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge-testing center. In addition, the pilot must be at least 16 years old and vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration. To learn more about the certificate, visit the FAA website.

Drone operators who already have an FAA pilot’s license must complete an online training course about drones and then apply for a remote pilot certificate.

The FAA regulations now in effect for commercial users operating a drone under a Section 333 exemption, include a 400-foot altitude limit for flights without operational approval, a 55-pound aircraft weight limit, a maximum speed of 100 mph, daytime operation only, flights within the remote pilot’s visual line of sight only, no flights over people, and no use of drones within 5 nautical miles of airports.

To date, the FAA hasn’t made enforcement of the commercial-use rules for growers a priority. Dillard says he’s heard of the agency contacting a few farmers with a cease-and-desist order, but no enforcement actions or fines.

Because the FAA is charged with keeping airways safe and preventing accidents, Dillard suggests growers should stay abreast of FAA regulations. In addition, they should manage any potential liability through insurance, employee training and common sense when using the technology.

Regulations for recreational or hobbyist use are less complex, but do include many of the same flight requirements as commercial use. Last winter, the FAA mandated registration of recreational drones, which requires a $5 fee.

Drone Technology Advances

Farmers ready to purchase a drone will find a robust marketplace. Drone types and components range from $750 for entry level up to $25,000 for top-of-the-line systems. Those most popular among growers cost between $1,500 and $5,000, Blome says.

Drones are poised to have a major impact on farm production.

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Businesses offering drone services to growers usually buy the high-end models with near-infrared cameras and software to download data. Service providers like crop consultants use this technology to turn field imagery into tangible information for farmers.

“Interpretation of the data will probably require a third party,” says Ernie Chilcott, technical services lead at Syngenta. “I don’t foresee growers having a lot of extra time to work with this information in-season.”

In a previous role, Chilcott helped evaluate UAS service companies for potential commercial applications. At its research and development field test sites, Syngenta has selected the technology company Pravia to handle drone imagery of crops grown by Syngenta researchers this summer. Pravia meets FAA regulations and will send the data to Syngenta for internal use. Like growers, Syngenta expects that an easier, more accurate way to regularly monitor crop health and yield will be very beneficial, Chilcott says.

It’s clear that drone technology has the potential to facilitate crop management even more in the not-so-distant future. For example, some drones already have thermal sensors to detect stress in corn before visual signs appear, and on the horizon is the use of the aircraft for spot applications in the field.

“It’s a good idea for growers to become knowledgeable about drone technology now, because it’s reasonably priced and familiarity will help them keep up with the technology as it continues to evolve,” says Chilcott.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. Readers should read and understand all applicable laws and regulations and seek counsel if necessary.