The future of farming may hold drones

Hot air balloons and airplanes waving banners won’t be the only thing in the sky at the 2013 Farm Science Review. The trade show will feature a new kind of technology rarely been seen in the sky: unmanned aircraft systems, or drones.

Matt McCrink, a Ph.D. student in the Aerospace Engineering Department at The Ohio State University and research assistant to Dr. Jim Gregory at the Aeronautic and Astronautics Research Laboratory in Columbus, said while the technology is still in its infancy, it has the potential to have wide-ranging benefits for farmers.

Drones and crop health

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are military aircraft currently being repurposed for everyday use, especially within the field of precision agriculture. The hope is that drones will aid producers in monitoring crop health through the development of aerial imagery.

McCrink said drones will be able to provide better images more often, which will allow farmers to make better decisions.
Using unmanned aircrafts could save money because it would reduce human labor, because no one would have to spend the time in the aircraft taking the pictures. Robots will be able to do the work and more often than a human would be able to.

“The real benefit to farmers in the future is the frequency of use available,” said McCrink.

Data collection

He said by sending the drones into the air farmers will be able to keep an eye on weeds and precipitation needs in a field. In addition, the UAVs will also be able to provide local, site-specific data, including crop scouting and geo-referencing to allow growers to monitor pesticide dispersion and fertilizer usage, and to monitor crop health factors, including soil moisture.
McCrink said more research is needed to will at efficient ways to maximize the potential of aircrafts. He said it is very possible that drones will either serve or be owned by farmers in the next 20 years.

“Our goal in the agriculture industry is to be a source of better decisions for farmers,” said McCrink.

Federal regulation

The one stumbling block is federal regulation. McCrink said there is little research into drones because of Federal Aviation Administration policies that do not allow companies to complete a lot of research on drones.

Currently, the FAA does not allow UAVs to operate in national airspace. However, the FAA is allowing special certifications for universities and other public institutions to test whether or not UAVS can safely be integrated into national airspace.
McCrink said the data gathered in these pilot programs will be used in the development of regulations and commercialization of drone technology, which could impact the cost of crop production.

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