“…drones are going to ‘change agriculture as we know it in North America.'”

Following the law signed by President Obama earlier this year, by September 2015 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must prepare new regulations that will integrate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into US airspace. Predictions of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) say that up to 80% of commercial drones will be used in agriculture. That was the original idea of Steve Morris, president of MLB Company and an undisputed authority on UAVs, back in 1990s, when he began experimenting with drones.

It is expected that once UAVs are cleared for commercial use in the USA some 100, 000 new jobs will be created within a decade, generating economic impact of over $80 billion, most of which will account for agricultural applications. Elsewhere in the world, drones are already used for commercial purposes. Many countries are investing large sums of money in the development of their own drone technology. Apart from mapping the farming areas and monitoring crops, commercial drones are widely used for urban public security, fighting drug-trafficking, monitoring and conservation of natural resources and scientific and industrial research purposes.

Although their existence can be traced back to the World War I, drones were brought to our attention by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their commercialization in recent years was prompted by large corporations such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, which would like to employ them for different tasks, such as delivery, mapping, or ensuring worldwide access to internet. It is difficult to predict all the possible applications of commercial drones, but they have the potential to change the way we do things, not only in agriculture, but in wildlife management, search and rescue operations, 3-D mapping, and many more. For example, BP is already conducting drone surveillance of their oil pipelines and wildlife monitoring in Alaska.

Precision farming
As reported by LA Times, Scott Shearer, Ohio State University professor and an expert in precision agriculture, said that drones are going to “change agriculture as we know it in North America.” Considering numerous advantages that UAVs can bring to farmers, it will not be long before every one of them will want one. Agricultural drones can be equipped with variety of sensors, which can detect changes in the environment, such as the presence of potentially harmful airborne micro-organisms, or chemicals that could threaten crops or animals, thus helping farmers evaluate the situation and quickly respond to the emerging problem. They can also be programmed to take soil and water samples, which would ensure a more proactive approach to farming, allowing farmers to apply necessary treatments with great precision, before crops and animals are significantly impacted, thus saving millions of dollars in potential losses. The only alternative available today for crops-monitoring are the plane flybys, which have limited usability compared to specialized drones, and can cost around $3 per acre, proving to be quite an expensive investment.
Specialized drones for precision farming can be quite expensive too. Their prices range from several thousands to more than 150 thousand dollars, but some initiatives have already been taken to lower their costs to around $500. David Doll, University of California Cooperative Extension adviser in Merced County is leading a project funded by UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources to adapt drone design and imaging equipment for agricultural use that will be affordable to everyone. Even with today’s prices, Precision Drone LLC, agricultural drone manufacturer, claims the return of investment for their drones can be met within a crop season or less.

The biggest drawbacks for a wider use of UAVs are safety issues and the protection of privacy. Considering the fact that the largest number of commercial drones would be employed in remote and rural areas, it would be safe to conclude they would not seriously challenge any of those matters, and that their benefits would greatly surpass their disadvantages. Many in the US industry and agriculture, especially, companies like Google and Amazon, are agog at FAA rules governing private drone operations, scheduled for 2015.