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Drones evolve into a new tool for ag

05/10/2013 @ 7:21am

Loss of pilots over hostile territory fueled the birth of the drone in 1918. Nearly a century later, the mention of the word evokes a negative connotation.

“I think the first thing you imagine when you hear the word drone is this image of a predator operating in Afghanistan with an assault weapon or missile strapped underneath,” says Rory Paul, of Volt Aerial Robotics.

Yet, these devices, which Paul refers to as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), have the potential to be more than just spies in the sky. A passionate advocate for the use of this technology in agriculture, Paul has been working to change that image from foe to friend.

“UAS are something more intelligent than just a target drone that is shot down by antiaircraft artillery,” he notes.

Though he’s been working to introduce the concept to agriculture since 2006, it’s only recently that the tides have turned.

“It is an area that has been ignored, but there’s a change in the focus that has happened in the last few months,” says Paul. “The big defense players are slowly turning their eyes toward the potential these devices hold for ag applications.”

The greatest possibilities, he believes, are in aerial imagery and data acquisition. He also thinks size won’t matter when reaping the benefits. “These systems will be operated by small and large farmers to acquire data when they want it,” he says.

Agent for change             

Despite the potential value UAS bring to agriculture, there are still challenges to navigate. Their use falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It is in the process of developing rules and a plan for commercial use of UAS in national airspace by 2015, which is currently strictly prohibited.

As both a full-scale, instrument-rated private pilot and a model airplane enthusiast, Roger Brining has been flying model remote-controlled (RC) aircraft for recreational use under the rules and safety guidelines of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) since the 1970s.   

“Model aircraft have successfully and safely coexisted with full-scale planes for years,” he says. “The FAA has worked with the AMA for decades to ensure that safety is maintained. The catch is that all of these guidelines and safety programs specifically exclude any commercial use of RC aircraft. Once we get into a company charging a farmer to take aerial imagery, this becomes a commercial use.”


The one area the FAA believes will see the largest near-term growth is in small UAS (sUAS, which are under 20 pounds). By the end of 2013, it is expected to release a proposed rule governing the use of sUAS. It could take a few more years, however, before a final rule is implemented because of the comment and review process that follows.

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