Va. Beach crop drone gives peek into farming’s future


Yesterday met tomorrow over a Pungo cornfield Thursday.

A drone – looking like a spider, sounding like a swarm of bees – was introduced to farmers at the Virginia Ag Expo. Armed with a camera, it promises those who work the soil a view from the air, a vantage point that can help growers spot crop trouble before it’s too late.

Joe Maja flies the experimental drone, designed for agricultural use, near a soy bean field during a demonstration at the Virginia Ag Expo in Virginia Beach on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013.  <span class='credit'>(Steve Earley | The Virginian-Pilot)</span>

But they’ll have to wait. The crop drone, despite its worthy mission, is lumped in with others of its kind – grounded, for the most part, by safety and privacy concerns.

“The technology is ahead of the regulations,” said Jim Owen, a member of the research team that developed the drone. An assistant professor from Virginia Tech, Owen works out of the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center on Diamond Springs Road.

Drones – most civilian versions, anyway – aren’t much different from the remote-controlled aircraft that hobbyists have flown for years. Both are “unmanned aerial vehicles” – or UAVs. The hobbyist, however, can fly with little or no oversight, while a craft like the crop drone – considered a commercial UAV – requires operating authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, a laborious process.

“A farmer can own his land,” Owen said, “but he doesn’t own the airspace above it.”

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