Ag producers need to help set rules for unmanned aerial vehicles

Farm Forum

A wave of innovation is soaring across ag country as some refer to the unmanned aerial vehicles as flying farm implements. Those attending the annual meeting in Huron for South Dakota Wheat Growers were able to learn about this latest technology from an expert as well as take a look at one of the small drones.

At the meeting Robert Blair, a farmer from Idaho, gave his presentation, “Will a UAV be Your Next Piece of Equipment?” He lives near Kendrick, Idaho, roughly 275 miles north of Boise.

“The increasing potential use of unmanned aerial vehicles in agriculture will depend on what the government does,” Blair said. “Right now the Federal Aviation Administration is working on getting proposed rules out by November with rules for the unmanned aerial vehicles in place by 2015.”

“Agriculture has not had a seat at the table with the Federal Aviation Administration process,” Blair told Wheat Growers members. “There need to be on-the-ground farmers, not researchers, at the table discussing the rules. NASA might be there, but it’s a different use for those on the ground. I tried to get on the rules committee, but was told I was too late. It’s interesting politics. Some of it comes from the ag image issue. We are viewed as American Gothic, with bib overalls and pitchforks. Most farmers are very highly specialized and most outside the industry don’t realize that. The UAVs may be as important as John Deere’s plow, McCormick’s reaper or Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. Using these machines will allow farmers to have a huge impact on their operations. Getting the information is a bigger and bigger issue, as we need to know for economic and environmental planning. Being sustainable has gotten to be a bigger issue. Big companies such as Wal-Mart and John Deere have someone on staff dedicated to sustainability, from the top on down. Technology is the future of ag and sustainability is a big part of that.”

Uses range from monitoring livestock grazing patterns to tracking the spread of invasive plant species and collecting data on crop health, vigor and yields. The Federal Aviation Administration does not allow UAV commercial use. Businesses and researchers can only apply for a special, experimental airworthiness certificate for research and development, flight demonstrations or crew training. Government entities can apply for a Certificate of Authorization.

Blair noted that many times there is damage to crops that farmers don’t see until harvest time. This can happen in corn, soybeans and wheat. Having the eye in the sky allows farmers to possibly make changes later in the season to have a better crop.

“We have to realize the importance of this technology and get the story out there,” Blair said. “We need to work with grower groups, ag organizations and partner with UAV to show Congress what this technology can do. There will be economic benefits by providing new jobs sectors. It’s important to inform our elected officials as to the potential impact to ag and to rural communities.”

According a story on, in a report on The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States, precision agriculture is one of the markets with the largest potential for this technology. The document, which was released by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), estimates that in just two years the economic and employment impacts of ag spending in all 50 states will be nearly $2.1 billion and creating more than 21,500 jobs.

Blair is excited and is sharing ways that UAVs have been successful. When he spoke at a conference in 2007, no one had heard about UAVs. This year, at a similar conference, there were six vendors and the technology was in the forefront. “People are beginning to understand the potentials and it’s the next evolution for precision ag. We need to collect the information to work with our yield monitors so we can be more efficient.”

Recently Amazon created quite a stir when it announced that drones would be delivering packages. Those outside of ag are looking at the technology and ways to be invested in UAVs. Ag needs to figure out how best to use it, “Ag is attractive and sexy in the business world, but they don’t understand our needs,” Blair said. “There will be a big influx of money drawn to this technology and we need to be a part of the discussion.”

A few years back, the PDA (personal digital assistant) was huge. “Now what I’m doing in my farming operation is what is coming in the future,” Blair said. “It comes down to ‘are you going to be a leader or a follower.’ Agriculture needs to come together to get this technology moving forward, to help shape what it will do.”

Blair suggests that those in the ag industry learn as much as they can about the technology by reading stories and checking the internet for the latest information.

Blair has experience using UAVs. His aircraft is the size of a turkey, and Blair uses it to get a birds-eye view of his cows and fields of wheat, peas, barley and alfalfa. As he demonstrates its use, he finds it easier for people to grasp the potential. His UAV is essentially a model airplane — allowed by the FAA as long as it’s flown below 400 feet above ground level, far from populated areas and no one is compensated for the flight.

“I can see when winter wheat is coming out of dormancy,” Blair said. “I check all season until the end of ripening, I can see the damage elk and deer caused in my field. It’s where the technology is heading. There is tremendous potential for farmers and ag businesses as well.”

Blair said it’s like a 1940s tractor, it can get the job done, but this technology can make life for agriculture a whole lot easier.

Bill Pool, Director of Communications and Corporate Marketing for Wheat Growers, said their company has purchased a small UAV, and their precision ag group will be learning about the technology and how best to use it in the company. Rules and regulations will be reviewed along with learning what pieces need to come together to best utilize the technology.

“We want to be on the forefront of this technology. It will take some practice and some of the software will need to be developed,” Pool said. “Many were amazed at the size of the device. Farmers could put their hands on it and start some of the conversations about how it might fit into their operations. Many are still getting their arms around the use of variable rate technology. They’ll be looking at ways UAVs can make or save money for them.”