WASHINGTON — Drones are quickly moving from the battlefield to the farmer’s field — on the verge of helping growers oversee millions of acres throughout rural America and saving them big money in the process.
While much of the attention regarding drones has focused recently on Amazon and UPS seeking to use them to deliver packages, much of the future for drones is expected to come on the farm. That’s because agriculture operations span large distances and are mostly free of privacy and safety concerns that have dogged the use of these aerial high-fliers in more heavily populated areas.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group that represents producers and users of drones and other robotic equipment, predicts that 80% of the commercial market for drones will eventually be for agricultural uses. Once the Federal Aviation Administration establishes guidelines for commercial use, the drone industry said it expects more than 100,000 jobs to be created and nearly half a billion in tax revenue to be generated collectively by 2025, much of it from agriculture. Iowa, the country’s largest corn and second-biggest soybean grower, could see 1,200 more jobs and an economic impact topping $950 million in the next decade.
“It is endless right now, the applications in agriculture,” said Kevin Price, a former professor at Kansas State who left the university this month to join RoboFlight, a Denver-based company that sells drones and analyzes the data collected on corn, soybean and other field crops. Farmers “are going to be able to see things and monitor their crops in ways they never have before. In the next 10 years almost every farm will be using it.”
Today, satellites, manned planes and walking the field are the main ways farmers monitor their crops. But these methods often can be incomplete or time consuming, and when data is collected it can take a long time to process and analyze. As a result, it can be difficult or impossible for the farmer to react to a problem like a disease outbreak before it’s too late or the costs to treat it have soared.
Drones — which range in cost from $2,000 for a plane the farmer puts together up to around $160,000 for a military-style device — are equipped with infrared cameras, sensors and other technology controlled by a pilot on the ground. The sticker shock may be steep, but backers of the technology say the data they collect — from identifying insect problems, watering issues, assessing crop yields or tracking down cattle that have wandered off — help farmers recover the investment, often within a year.
Farmers also can use drones to tailor their use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer and other applications based on how much is needed at a specific point in a field — a process known as precision agriculture — saving the grower money from unnecessarily overusing resources while at the same time reducing the amount of runoff that could flow into nearby rivers and streams.
Brent Johnson, a corn and soybean farmer in Calhoun County in central Iowa, purchased a drone in 2013 for $30,000 that is already paying dividends on his 900-acre farm. He’s used the aircraft, which covers about 80 acres an hour, to study how yields on his property are affected by changes in topography. And last growing season he identified some areas where his corn stands were not strong enough, information he’s going to consider in future plantings when he decides whether to replant or avoid the acreage all together. This year he’s going to scout early for any problems and use the data he collects to help determine when to sell his crops.
“I’m always looking for an advantage, looking for how I can do things better,” said Johnson, who also owns a precision agriculture company.
While some farmers could join Johnson and buy their own drones, most are expected to hire companies that specialize in this niche market. A major reason to hire someone instead of buying is the extensive training needed to operate the costly piece of machinery and the complexity of flying it.
RoboFlight, which opened a facility in Des Moines this month to house data it collects from surveying land for farmers, has positioned itself to sell drones in much the same way as General Motors works with its dealers to peddle cars. The company has pacts in place throughout nearly a third of the United States with John Deere dealers who will showcase the devices and sell services like training and hardware right next to the big green tractors and combines displayed in their showrooms.
Phil Ellerbroek, director of sales at RoboFlight, declined to give specific sales data for 2014 but said the firm is on pace to post “triple-digit growth in both hardware and (drone) sales.” The company also has seen strong demand from farmers looking to RoboFlight to survey their land. Since it first started signing contracts in January, RoboFlight has inked nearly 400,000 acres. The pace of orders from farmers and ranchers has increased since then.
“Our phones are continually ringing,” said Ellerbroek.
Still, he said for drones to have a meaningful and long-lasting impact in agriculture, they need to be retrofitted with additional devices to collect more information such as thermal sensors to identify early signs of plant stress that can later be parsed, analyzed and used by farmers.
“We need to do more than just generate pretty pictures,” he said. “Unless you have usable data, it’s all noise. Despite how attractive UAVs look, and the potential is there, if we don’t help (translate that information) into actual data UAVs could fall into a fad.”
For the most part, drone use has been largely relegated to the military, but law enforcement and other government agencies can apply to the FAA for special permission to use them in civil airspace. But the moves have raised privacy concerns. This year alone nearly three dozen states are considering legislation that would place restrictions on drone use and data collection. Lawmakers say they feel compelled to start working on the issue as a wave of drones are starting to be considered for purposes ranging from finding missing children to delivering pizzas, along with agricultural uses.
Gilbert Landolt, president of the Des Moines Veterans for Peace chapter, said while he and others have protested the way the U.S. military uses drones for operations overseas, they concede the technology could be beneficial for some with the proper oversight.
“There are good uses for drones, I’m not saying there’s not, but we need to get a handle on it,” said Landolt. “If they had some type of control over it and could do it in a way on a farm that makes sense I don’t have an issue with that.”
As farmers press ahead using drones, there is some uncertainty over how much flexibility the federal government has really given agriculture to use the aircraft. Even farm operators and drone companies are divided over how much authority they have been given to fly the aircraft.
Later this year, the FAA is expected to propose rules for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. This should cover most uses on the farm. Until then, the agency said some operators will continue to incorrectly assume they can operate drones under the guise of existing model aircraft rules — which would cover planes flown for personal use below 400 feet, within eyesight and a safe distance from airports and populated areas. The use by people or companies for business purposes is not allowed.
There also is uncertainty today as to whether a farmer who decides to use his own drone to survey as part of his effort to run his business and make a profit would be considered a commercial entity. The FAA does not allow drones to be used for commercial operations unless they apply for a special exemption. Government and universities can operate drones as long as they get a waiver and fly them within a specific area.
“We are concerned about any (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) operation that poses a hazard to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground,” the agency said in a statement. “If we receive a complaint about such UAS flights, we investigate to determine if the operator violated FAA safety regulations.”
Johnson, who uses a drone on his Iowa farm, said the lack of rules from the FAA is the biggest challenge for farmers eager to embrace the technology. “We just don’t have enough direction from the FAA as to what we can do and what we shouldn’t do,” he said. “The technology is extremely exciting. People just have to be careful right now with the political pressure and lack of rules.”
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has been pressing the FAA to allow limited drone use for some operations like farmers and movies, citing authority already granted by Congress. “Instead, they are taking a one size fits all approach, which is to regulate the entire airspace to prevent anyone from flying,” said Ben Gielow, general counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
As federal regulators struggle to define how drones can be used for commercial purposes, many countries around the world have loose guidelines for how these devices can be used. Drones are being used for agriculture in a slew of countries including Canada, Australia, Japan and Brazil.
Price, the former Kansas State professor who is now an executive vice president of commercial integration with RoboFlight, told farm conference attendees in January that farmers should begin learning how to use drones rather than wait until the FAA acts. “It’s going to blow your socks off. There is no question this technology is moving forward and it’s going to move fast,” said Price. “Don’t wait. If you’re going to wait until the FAA says you can then you’ll be two years behind everybody else.”