Will Drones Revolutionize Agriculture?

Drones are big right now.  We are seeing them everywhere, and even in some places where they shouldn’t be.  However, I think one application is being overlooked for the most part by the tech community – agriculture.

UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Sysytems) have the potential to revolutionize how we look at and maintain crops, facilities, and even applications like herding animals.  Their ability to carry payloads like cameras, utilize GPS data, and their autonomy make them a technology that will have many agricultural applications.  Right now FAA regulations need to catch up, but I look forward to a day when can see the full benefit of this technology.

When it comes to greenhouse operations like Bob’s Market, the use of drones is somewhat limited, for obvious reasons.  However, I do see potential for cheap drones equipped with cameras being used to inspect the roofs of greenhouses.  I know we’ve had to send folks to the roof before to inspect for damage after severe storms.  

A cheap drone from Amazon could be a safer option.

 They could also be used in outdoor growing areas too, like our mum field in the fall, to check for overall crop health and for color starting to appear.

With farming there are a ton of potential uses for drones.  Drones with NVDI or near infrared cameras can be used to survey crop health.  A company in China, Zero UAV, is even developing a drone that can apply pesticides.  There is a Colorado-based company called Agribotix, which offers drones specifically designed for agriculture.  Their drones fly autonomously using mission planning software to map out a flightpath over the fields.  They also include image/data processing (at a hefty price).

Another potential application for drones in farming is herding animals.  There are a number of farmers experimenting with using drones to herd cattle and sheep.  The only current limitation with drones is that they have a limited flight time.  Currently battery life maxes out around 20 minutes for most off the shelf drones under $1,000.  However, buying multiple batteries is a somewhat viable option.

The sky is the limit when it comes to potential uses for drones in agriculture, but right now the only limiting factor is the FAA.  Under FAA regulations drones are considered aircraft and a commercial flights require a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval.  Otherwise, the use of small drones falls into the “hobby” aircraft category, and likewise, the use of hobby aircraft for commercial purposes is prohibited.

At best this means that companies like Agribotix are operating in a legal gray area.  Is it illegal for them to sell drones?  No.  Is it illegal for their customers to use them for commercial purposes? Yes.  However, the FAA seems to be letting legal infractions slide for the moment, especially in the film industry.  I’ve have seen video footage from drones used for commercial purposes everywhere - even in the horticultural industry.  With the FAA potentially handing out $10,000 fines to offenders, I think it is a risk not worth taking at the moment.  Hopefully, we’ll see drones coming to a farm near you when the FAA finally updates their regulations which isn’t expected until September at the earliest.