Drones in agriculture – more than just technical challenges

UF'UAS team member Travis Whitley launches the UF Nova 2 1s UAS at the recent Florida Ag Expo.

At first glance, it looked like a toy – an expensive toy from one of those coffee table catalogs. But it definitely was not a toy. It was a drone – an agricultural tool with quite a future.

Demonstrators from the University of Florida explained to a field tour group at the recent Florida Ag Expo that there are a lot of good reasons for farmers to use drones, or more accurately, unmanned aircraft systems or unmanned aerial vehicles.

(The terms “UAS” and “UAV” are pretty much used interchangeably. Read more here.)

Matt Burgess of UF’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Program explained that an unmanned aerial vehicle can estimate crop yields, detect stress in a crop, assess herbicide efficacy, optimize nutrient and water usage and supplement the work of crop scouts.

“By using different sensors, such as infrared and thermal imagery, you’re able to scout for many different issues,” Burgess said.

He said that the crafts are either fixed-wing or rotor craft. “The fixed-wing UAS can fly longer, but the rotor craft can carry more payload.”

Image taken at the Florida Ag Expo from the UF Nova 2 1s UAS

Burgess and other presenters explained that an unmanned aerial vehicle does its job by flying a specific plan and using algorithms to detect problems.

Dr. Raymond McCarthy, head of UF/IFAS’ Wildlife Ecology and Conservation department, said the systems and cameras are becoming less expensive and more accessible. The craft they demonstrated was made from carbon fiber and Kevlar. “It has a nine-foot wingspan and is equipped with GPS technology. It’s hand-launched and programmed to fly in what is called a ‘mowing the lawn’ pattern,” McCarthy said.

So far, so good. In a perfect world, these systems would quickly be purchased and put to work by those with the means. The problem is that they can’t just be launched anytime, anywhere, by anyone. The Federal Aviation Authority, which regulates almost anything that flies through the air short of an arrow, has said it’s fine to fly drones as a hobby, but commercial use is something else.

The FAA has developed proposed rules for commercial usage, which are now being reviewed by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House. Once the White House review is complete, the FAA will publish the rules. Those familiar with the process expect the ruling to require operators to have a license and limit flights to daylight hours, below 400 feet and within sight of the operator. They also would group all drones weighing less than 55 pounds under one set of rules. Once the rules are published, a public comment period will open. Final rules may take as long as two years to be issued.

The only way to use an unmanned aerial vehicle for commercial purposes today is by earning one of two types of certificates or by obtaining an exemption from a 2012 law that regulates unmanned aircraft.

“Each of these options is made on a case-by-case basis by the FAA,” said Burgess. “Flying a UAV for any purpose other than recreation or hobby requires a Certificate of Authorization (COA), a Special Airworthiness Certificate (Experimental Category), or a Section 333 FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 exemption from the FAA,” Burgess said.

The FAA has given clearances to petroleum companies using the technology in the Arctic, for movie companies using it on a closed set and very recently, four companies won approval to fly commercial drones to conduct aerial surveys, monitor construction sites and inspect oil flare stacks. “It is my opinion that UAVs for agriculture possess similar safety and economic advantages, and based on the fact that the FAA seems to be slowly reaching out to UAV applications that are of ‘lowest risk’ to the general public  such as remote Arctic airspace and closed movie sets, it is my belief that low-altitude, autonomously-controlled UAV flights over remote agricultural applications will be permitted by the FAA sooner than other UAV applications such as suburban agriculture, urban photography, package delivery, etc.,” Burgess said.

UF's Dr. Amr Abd-Elrahman briefs participants in the Ag Expo field tour on the UAS' specs.

The National Transportation Safety Board also has stepped into the arena. It issued a decision in November that disappointed many drone enthusiasts. It announced that FAA rules governing manned aircraft also apply to unmanned aircraft. The decision reversed an earlier court ruling that it was OK for a man to fly his drone on the University of Virginia campus. The NTSB decision means that the man’s actions could be considered dangerous or reckless under the same rules that apply to manned planes. The case will be determined by an administrative law judge.

Burgess doesn’t think the NTSB decision will be a factor in whether UAVs can be used for agricultural purposes. “The NTSB ruling that UAVs are indeed aircraft should not have significant impact on the already complex underlying issues that hinder all UAV applications, including agricultural uses,” he said.

Read more about the court decision here.

Burgess believes in the future of unmanned craft in agriculture, but operators must do their part, he said. “The FAA is tasked with an extremely difficult situation in developing regulations and integrating UAVs into the National Airspace System quickly due to the exponential proliferation and availability of UAVs to the masses at a rate far faster than they were prepared to handle,” he said.

“It is critical that UAV users use ‘due diligence’ as the FAA moves forward with the rulemaking process. As with most governmental decisions, they never move fast enough, nor please everyone, but those facts are not going to change.  Agricultural applications of UAVs will have a huge economic impact on both the agriculture industry as well as for the consumer,” he said.

– Photo credits for top three images: Matthew Burgess

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