Drones Promising for Ag, But Legally Just for Fun Farm Bureau Tire

Lancaster Farming, Saturday, January 24, 2015 - A17
Drones Promising for Ag, But Legally Just for Fun
Philip Gruber
Staff Writer
Small, GPS-controlled flying machines could give farmers a
new vantage for collecting data on their fields, but the technology is not yet approved for commercial use.
Made popular after the U.S. military started using unmanned
aircrafts to find and kill terrorists in Afghanistan, drones have
caught the attention of farmers, real estate agents, filmmakers
and hobbyists.
Ohio State University Extension educator John Barker talked
about the promise and problems with unmanned aerial vehicles,
or UAVs, during a university webinar on Tuesday.
UAV is “kind of the term everyone likes to use in agriculture.
They really don’t like to hear the word drone,” which connotes
the crafts’ threatening military purposes, Barker said.
Unlike familiar remote control toys, UAV use GPS to navigate, allowing them to fly precise patterns and record detailed
They come equipped with cameras, too, which could make
them good tools for scouting a field for insects, weeds and diseases. They could also check plant stands and wildlife damage,
Barker said.
Flying the vehicle around is easy and fun, which might lead
farmers to inspect more thoroughly than they would if they were
walking their fields, he said.
It might also help someone who has a bad knee and cannot get
around easily, he said.
Eventually UAVs might be used to apply herbicides and fertilizer. “Obviously, our drones are going to have to change” to do
that, probably by getting bigger, Barker said.
Chemical application by little UAVs would probably be better
suited to specialty crops rather than row crops, Barker said.
Even if they do not carry the chemicals, UAVs could have a
nitrogen sensor and be followed by a variable-rate applicator. “I
don’t think that’s too far away,” he said.
Barker said his quadcopter, souped up for educational purposes, cost around $16,000, including a $3,000 base station with
a screen, and a $4,000 infrared camera.
A farmer could get by with a much cheaper setup, he said.
UAVs come in two basic designs: fixed-wing, which resemble
airplanes; and rotary-wing, which have four helicopter-style
blades on top.
The fixed-wing vehicles may fly a little faster than the rotarywings. UAVs are being targeted for scouting and other data collection activities, so “I’m not sure that speed is always something
that’s always going to be a big issue. The range, though, the range
is,” Barker said.
Glider-style vehicles can travel farther than the quadcopters because they have fewer motorized parts.
A fixed-wing has one propeller and a camera to run, but the
copters have four rotors, plus usually several cameras and GPS
units, Barker said.
On the downside, fixed-wing UAVs need to be mechanically
launched by a catapult or similar device. Manufacturers suggest
landing the machine on a canopy of soybeans or wheat, but “what
do you do if that’s not available?” Barker said.
Of course, a product that needs such a soft landing will raise
questions about its durability. “If you miss, it could hit a road or
ditch,” Barker said.
Perhaps the biggest problem with fixed-wing crafts is that they
cannot hover in one place. “If you see something you want to stop
and look at, you really can’t do that,” Barker said.
If you want the flexibility to flit around the field, the rotarywing copters may be for you.
They can take off from anywhere, and they can travel at variable speeds. The tradeoff is the batteries only last 15-20 minutes
on a charge, Barker said.
Barker’s handheld controller has two joysticks to control how
the quadcopter flies. Users can get a screen on a tripod to follow
the vehicle’s video feed.
The screen also shows the battery life. Bring the UAV down before the juice runs out, or it will come down anyway, Barker said.
The screen also tells you the number of satellites the vehicle
has contact with. You need at least seven satellites to have good
communication with the drone, he said.
Because UAVs use GPS, you can program a flight path for the
machine to follow. You can interrupt the preset path if you want to
check something out, he said.
The screen will also show how high the vehicle is flying. That
is mildly important because the Federal Aviation Administration,
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or FAA, does not allow these aircrafts to be flown more than 400
feet from the ground, Barker said.
If you are having trouble with the vehicle, there is a “go to
home” option that overrides the human controls and sends the
quadcopter back to where it took off from.
Watch out, though: If something is between you and the chopper, the vehicle will crash into it, Barker said.
Barker also has a pair of goggles that show the video from the
UAV. If “it’s a bright and sunny day and sometimes you have trouble seeing that monitor, you can stick these goggles on,” Barker
The technology Barker is using is already on the market, but
farmers may not use it to manage their farms.
“On the regulation side, it’s kind of a mess,” he said.
The FAA originally planned to release rules on civilian drones
in September 2015. Then it moved the date for the regulations up
to last month, which it missed. Now it might push the rules off
until 2017, Barker said.
Until the FFA clarifies things, UAVs are only for personal, not
commercial, use.
In other words, you can fly them around for fun, but “I can’t fly
out over my own field in the middle of nowhere and use that data
to make some management decisions to do a better job farming,”
Barker said.
Commercial use means something you could deduct on your
taxes. Even selling soybeans from a field you scouted with a UAV
is technically illegal, Barker said.
Still, the FAA has to ensure that drones will be safe and will not
be used to invade people’s privacy, so it makes sense that the FAA
plans to regulate UAVs, Barker said.
People in his county seat of Mount Vernon called the police
when someone flew a drone over the town square for fun. A drone
interfered with the landing of a medevac helicopter last year in
Dayton, he said.
Elsewhere in the country, a man shot a drone out of the sky
because his neighbor was harassing him with it, and a drone sent
five people to the hospital when it crashed into the stands at a
race, Barker said.
“They can do some damage,” he said.
The FAA has authorized several testing sites at universities
around the nation, but Barker said he is not working with any
of them. Like other farmers, he is stuck using the drone
noncommercially for now.
Barker said he will be part of a discussion with the
FAA in a few weeks to get more clarity on how drones
can be used for university research.
For now, though, a potentially powerful tool for precision agriculture lies just beyond farmers’ reach, he said.
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