If the FAA keeps to its deadlines, September 30, 2015 will be the day unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) are allowed to enter the airspace for commercial use. And on that late autumn day, many of the first businesses to take their robots out of the box and prepare them for liftoff will be farms.
It’s expected that agriculture— not public safety—will be the number one market for domestic drones.
Across the country, land grant universities are researching ways to make use of the new technology, from aerial imaging of fields, to crop spraying, to monitoring airborne plant pathogens. Robotics manufacturers who have typically eyed the Department of Defense for contracts, are beginning to look to the fields. And lobbyists are hard at work on the Hill, spreading the word to congressmen and FAA officials that "drones" (a word they hate, since it implies there’s no one holding the remote control) can do a lot more than just fight shadow wars in the Middle East and East Africa.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a group representing UAS researchers and manufacturers, estimates that in the first three years of the integration of UAS into the airspace, the economic impact will surpass $13.6 billion as new companies and whole new industries form to exploit the technology. Of that economic boost, the AUVSI predicts much of it will be in agriculture.
Here are three ways, in particular, that UAS could change the face of American agriculture:
By the time a plant typically shows signs of disease, it’s already too late. Researchers at Virginia Tech. are currently tinkering with UAS to track plant pathogens high in the atmosphere.
"It’s essentially petri dishes attached to model airplanes," says Shane Ross, a professor of dynamical systems at Virginia Tech. Send his team’s UAS on a flight, and they quickly detect the presence of certain microbes, like fusarium, a fungus that plagues wheat and barley. "If you got a whole sentinel network of these things, flying around agricultural fields, then you could have a much better model and prediction of how plant disease spread." Farmers in Pennsylvania could be tipped off that a disease showed up in Georgia, and would know how likely it was to head their way, based on weather patterns. This would inform their decision to spray.
Canadian company CropCam is just waiting for the U.S. to start letting farmers take advantage of its $7,000 camera-equipped radio-controlled glider plane. The GPS controlled plane will automatically navigate in a pattern over a farmer’s fields while taking geotagged high-resolution images, letting farmers know which parts of the field are thriving and which parts are failing.
First introduced to Japanese farmers in 1990, Yamaha’s RMAX helicopter now sprays 30 percent of the country’s rice paddies. Robotic helicopters are perfectly suited to maneuver the rugged terrain and small fields where rice grows—it’s safer than sending manned aircraft.
At UC Davis, researchers have experimented with the same chopper in Napa Valley vineyards. Indeed, smaller, craggier fields of more boutique crops—like grapes— are where UAS are most likely to be used for spraying. Unmanned copters only hold a few gallons of spray at a time, while the biggest crop dusting planes, used on mega-fields in the Midwest, can dump hundreds of gallons of pesticides and fungicides at a time.
Interestingly, what all these uses of UAS have in common is the ability to give farmers better data about their fields. A more informed farmer is able to use pesticides and other chemicals more efficiently, since he can target only the crops that need help or spray at the exact moment that pesticides are called for.
While there are certainly many concerns about integrating UAS into the domestic airspace, from fears about privacy to safety, it’s possible that the health of agricultural land—and the bottom line of farmers—will be two of the big winners.