There are still some obstacles in the way, but it appears that commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for agricultural purposes may be around the corner. These are sometimes referred to as drones -- aerial surveillance technology. These UAV systems can be used in agriculture if they are approved by the U.S. government.
A recent Reuters news story says the Federal Aviation Agency recently certified two high-end fixed-wing UAV systems. One was developed by Boeing; the other is from AeroViroment, Inc. In both cases, the planes weigh less than 50 pounds, have 4.5 feet wingspans and are in the $100,000 price range.
This technology has been tested the past two years, scouting farm fields in Iowa
Rory Paul, who owns and operates Volt Aerial Robotics, spoke on possible agricultural uses for UAVs at the Iowa Soybean Association's 2013 On-Farm Network conference last winter in Ames. He says this recent action by the Federal Aviation Agency appears to be a "…slight softening of their stance with regards to agricultural use of these UAV systems, and that is encouraging."
Paul first demonstrated his UAVs for On-Farm Network staff a year ago by helping scout a field where a corn rootworm trial had shown considerable lodging. He again demonstrated the value of such craft in scouting a similar field in Iowa this year.
Paul says use of UAVs for aerial mapping and scouting of fields had been slowed by the lack of fast, reasonably priced software for stitching the individual images produced by UAV mounted cameras into a geo-referenced view of an entire field. "However, we have seen some advances in technology in the last few months in image processing with better image stitching software. And in the past two months, we saw the introduction of some really interesting software for creating NVDI imagery from low cost sensors. In my opinion this new software is a game changer."
The Reuters news report that is mentioned earlier in this article also says FAA is expected to announce six sites where UAVs will be tested sometime in the next few months.
Paul says UAVs can be used for noncommercial purposes, providing they aren't flown in FAA regulated air space. He suggests that farmers and others interested in seeing UAVs certified for agricultural applications might be able to get agricultural exemptions for the technology by working with their farm organizations and USDA. For more information or if you have questions, contact Paul by email at [email protected]. You can also email Pat Reeg at the ISA On-Farm Network, [email protected] or call him at 515-669-9184.