By Mary Clare Jalonick
Courtesy The Associated Press
CORDOVA, Md. — Mike Geske wants a drone.
Watching a flying demonstration on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Missouri farmer envisions using an unmanned aerial vehicle to monitor his farm’s irrigation pipes — a job he pays three men to do.
“The savings on labor and fuel would just be phenomenal,” Geske said, watching a drone hover over a nearby corn field and transmitting detailed pictures to an iPad.
Nearby, farmer Chip Bowling tries flying one of the drones. Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Association, said he would like one for his Maryland farm to help him scout fields that need extra spraying.
Another farmer, Bobby Hutchison, says he is hoping the man he hires weekly to observe his crops gets a drone, to make the process more efficient and accurate.
“I see it very similar to how I saw the computer when it first started,” says Hutchison, 64. “It was a no-brainer.”
The small, relatively inexpensive drones could transmit detailed information about crops to combines and sprayers, directing them to problem spots and cutting down on the water and chemicals that a farmer needs to use.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, says agriculture could account for 80 percent of all commercial drone use. The Federal Aviation Administration has approved more than 50 exemptions for farm-related operations since January.
Companies with those exemptions say business has grown.
Bret Chilcott of Kansas-based AgEagle, which sells unmanned aerial vehicles and the software to operate them, said his company has a backlog of several hundred orders.
“Last year, users had to land their aircraft and then take the data to the computer,” he says. “Now the data appears on your iPad or hand-held device a few minutes after flight.”
That data could be pictures, 3-D images of plants, thermal readings or other observations from the air. Chilcott is optimistic that the technology will be transformative.
“In five years we won’t have to blanket a field with chemicals,” he said.
Still, most farmers cannot legally fly the vehicles yet. The FAA is working on rules to allow the drones to be used. An FAA proposal this year would allow drones that weigh less than 55 pounds, stay within the operator’s sight and fly during the day, among other restrictions. Operators would have to pass an FAA test and a Transportation Security Administration background check.
However, pilots of crop dusters and other planes that operate around farms fear the rules do not go far enough.
“We can’t see them,” said Andrew Moore of the National Agricultural Aviation Association. His group asked for trackers or lights on drones to help airplanes avoid them, but that was not included in the plan.