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Whether you refer to it as a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles), sUAS (small unmanned aerial systems), or drone, the technology has the potential to provide a cutting-edge way for farmers to monitor their crops, grasslands, and cattle without ever stepping foot in a field.
It's a technology that is currently being used in other countries like France, Japan, Spain and Uruguay.
"Around the world they are already using this type of
technology for things like spraying," says Rory Paul, Volt Aerial Robotics. "And they’ve been doing it for 20 years in
some cases. You can do different things with this technology – scouting, mapping, spraying
and maybe in the future sampling. We an see the scenario where an intelligent
Quadcopter will drop down to the field and maybe take a sample."
A self-proclaimed passionate advocate for the use of this technology, Paul has been working on implementing these systems into American agriculture since 2006.
"I see the most benefit for these devices is in the ag
sector," he says. "This is something that has been ignored but there’s been a change in the focus
that has happened in the last few months. The big defense players are slowly starting to turn their eye
toward the potential these devices hold for ag applications. In the next few months, I think we’re going
to see big changes as the use of this technology that has previously been in the
military sector is starting to infiltrate into civil use and
The Missouri-based company has developed two UAVs that they shared with a group of farmers in Des Moines, Iowa, recently.
The first is a rotary wing device (at left in the picture above), which is currently available for around $10,000. A fixed wing version (at right in the picture above) is in the process of being developed and tested. The company anticipates this second model will be available in a couple of months and will have a price tag below $5,000.
Yet, it seems that legally using one of these devices to scout fields isn't as simple as it seems because of current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. Defining where agriculture fits into the national airspace scheme is at the forefront of many discussions.
"The FAA says you can take a radio-controlled plane that you
can buy at your hobby store and fly it up to 400 feet for recreation," explains Paul. "Yet if you ask
the FAA if you can do this for commercial gain, the answer is no. My premise is that if we are allowed to fly for recreation at 400
feet, I believe we have the
right on our own properties to operate these systems commercially."
America has one of the, if not the, most complex air traffic systems in the world, which is divided into categories.
"Approximately 50,000 flights take off and land every day," says Paul. "There are 14,000 air
traffic controllers and 19,000 airports. This is the arena that we want to fly in
safely and we have to take that into consideration but I personally believe it can be done."
While there are less restrictions the lower you go, there are still restrictions. Paul believes the majority of ag applications for UAVs will take place in the Class G category (anything below 700 feet).
"This airspace is low to the ground and not interfering with any
traffic," he notes. "There’s much more room to maneuver down there."
The FAA is currently allowing special certifications for universities, like The Ohio State University, and other public institutions to test whether or not these devices can safely be integrated into national airspace. However, Paul notes that less than 80 of these certificates have been issued in the history of the FAA and the application process has been likened to that of writing a thesis paper.
Yet, testing these devices is critical in determining their safety in national airspace.
"The data gathered in these pilot programs will be instrumental in the development of regulations and commercialization of drone technology, which could significantly impact the cost of production," says Matt McCrink, a Ph.D. student in the Aerospace Engineering Department at The Ohio State University. He is also the research assistant to Dr. Jim Gregory at the Aeronautic and Astronautics Research Laboratory in Columbus.
As the process progresses and interest continues to grow among farmers and researchers, Paul says we have to keep things in perspective because they are not coming as quickly as some are reporting.
"UAVs are coming but they are coming slowly," he says.