In the U.S., unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, are still considered fairly new technology. The producers who are putting them to use on their own farms are still early adopters. However, over 4,000 miles away in France, Germany, and other parts of Europe, those in the ag sector have had a head start in flying UAS commercially. "They're basically taking what we want to do and moving forward with it. Having the legal authority to go out and fly already puts them a couple years ahead of us," says Beau Dealy of Apis Remote Sensing Systems in Hays, Kansas.
For example, in France, UAS are gathering imagery to make variable-rate prescriptions and improve efficiency. "What they're finding out is it's not just about savings, but reducing your inputs and increasing yields on the other end," Dealy says.
Dealy cites a December 2014 article in The Economist showing the gains French farmer Jean-Baptiste Bruggeman realized on his 210 hectares (519 acres). After collecting visible spectrum, infrared, and near infrared imagery via UAS, soil moisture and biomass data are analyzed by agronomists at Paris-based Airinov, and Bruggeman is able to make a variable-rate fertilizer prescription. This earns him an extra €50 per hectare ($23 per acre) for canola, and an extra €150 ($69 per acre) on his wheat acres.
"He's applying inputs where he needs to and conversely yields go up. He's getting a higher value crop because of the timeliness of applications," Dealy says. "It rings true that it's not a one and all solution, but a piece of the puzzle. If you use a UAS, it allows you to manage the other components of your crop."
France and other countries with "UAS-friendly" regulations have had those regulations for a couple years now, giving a competitive advantage over the U.S. "That doesn't sound like much, but in a fledgling industry where the technology moves quickly, that can give a huge competitive advantage," Dealy says.
The proposed rules on flying commercial UAS released by the Federal Aviation Administration in February, which list crop monitoring and inspection as an example for permitted use, would require operators to fly during daylight, within line of sight, and without special Air Traffic Control clearance, at 500 feet or under. UAS also cannot travel over 100 miles per hour and must weigh less than 55 pounds. Operators must be at least 17 years old and pass an "aeronautical knowledge test" at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.
"The folks we have talked to want very much to integrate UAS into their business model, but won't act until they have clear direction as to what they can and can't do," Dealy adds. "The proposed regulations released by the FAA this February are a significant step in the right direction; but we're missing opportunities every day that we can't act."