Agriculture to rely on drones despite regulatory lag

By Ron Kotrba | June 10, 2014

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) hold great promise in agriculture, but the Federal Aviation Administration is lagging in its understanding of how important drones are becoming to farmers, and in developing sensible regulations to govern the industry, according to panelists at the Emerging Corn Production Technologies and Science Forum in Indianapolis June 9.

Whether fixed wing or rotary varieties, UAS uses for scouting and mapping are taking farming to new levels of precision and accuracy.

Rory Paul, CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics, said fixed-wing UAS are better for mapping purposes while rotary-winged UAS are more suitable for scouting.

For Aaron Sheller with Precision Drone, who is also a seventh-generation farmer, the purpose of using UAS for scouting is not necessarily to decrease inputs like nitrogen, pesticides or herbicides, but rather to put them where they will provide the best return. Sheller said he saw a shortage in crop scouting abilities on his farm, and looked to UAS for an easier, better way. After spending time developing the right UAS capabilities for Sheller Family Farms, Sheller said he thought to build drones for neighbors. As a result, Precision Drone was born. The company offers kit-based, ready-to-fly UAS such as the hexi-copter (6 blades) with service dealers in 20 states and two countries.

“We need to progress more toward sustainable agriculture,” Sheller said, adding that UAS is one way to help achieve this. “To maintain current starvation rates, we must raise the same amount of food between now and 2050 as we have between the beginning of time and now.”

To generate geospatial accuracy using UAS, Paul said ground control is needed. If no ground control is used, errors of 60 feet could be experienced. Also, data becomes less accurate the further it is gathered from ground control.

Satellites, aircraft and UAS can all be used in agriculture to accomplish the same thing, although today satellites are low-resolution and slow-to-task while aircraft can cover a large area and offer high-resolution imagery, but the drawbacks are cost, limited availability and, again, slow-to-task. UAS, on the other hand, are low-cost and offer high-resolution imagery (4 to 10 centimeters), in addition to being highly deployable. Paul said geo-referencing with UAS is, however, more complicated than the agriculture industry would like to think.

Jeffrey Hauser, an assistant professor at Indiana State University, said by 2025, 70 to 80 percent of UAS use will be in agriculture. “And the better the images get, the more data it’s going to take,” he said. Rather than farmers employing UAS technology themselves though, Hauser said he sees small companies doing this on a contract basis wherein farmers receive preprogrammed systems that they launch, then the contractors send back the data for use as their clients see fit.

Melba Crawford with Purdue University said, “None of this is worth anything until it can be pulled together in a model.” UAS fills a gap between in situ sensors and satellites. “There’s been rapid miniaturization of advanced sensors, and software for autonomous navigation is improving,” she said.

If UAS are to reach their full potential in agriculture, the FAA must cultivate regulations that allow development and widespread use while maintaining safety standards, panelists said. The regulations must also be understood and unambiguous, unlike they are today. Farmers do not own the airspace above their land, Paul said, although they do have airspace usage rights that are guaranteed by the fifth amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

There are two ways to fly UAS legally: obtaining a certificate of operation, or being granted a special airworthiness permit by the FAA, only 90 of which have been issued in the entire U.S.

Paul said last November the FAA issued a statement giving a green light to operate UAS, but it has since backed off that allowance. He added that FAA is congressionally mandated to come up with a plan for UAS by 2015, but the timeline could be pushed back as far as 2025.

Much like the evolution of many technologies and the regulations that govern them, Hauser said FAA must develop standards for an industry already in operation, adding that he’s heard a rumor that FAA will allow drones 8.8 pounds or less to be flown on private farm land by the end of the year.

“You can build them, you can buy them, and the FAA can’t stop them,” Hauser said.

Paul said FAA is “totally out of touch with agriculture,” adding that “FAA will have to come around” because regardless of the government’s position, farmers will use UAS.

Panelists said most people ignore the fact that you need a license to operate UAS. Paul added that UAS proliferation “raises the specter of privacy concerns,” and if the issue becomes political, this could set the UAS industry back another 15 years. 

“As a grower, I know how important this is,” Sheller said. “I can feel it. At the end of the day, FAA will figure it out, because they will have to figure it out.”

“Everyone is excited about UAS technology,” Paul said, “but it’s really about the data we can obtain from it. We have a 20-year window of opportunity until satellites will be able to perform at the sub-inch level. Then UAS will be eclipsed by satellite technology.”