DECATUR – The ability to control the nation's air space is changing as more farmers want to use unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

While the use of UAVs, which are commonly referred to as drones, can be controversial, New York attorney Brendan Schulman said the equipment can be useful, particularly for agriculture. Other beneficial applications include search-and-rescue operations, he said.

Until the Federal Aviation Administration issues more clear rules for flying UAVs, Schulman said operators could face up to $10,000 fines for violating current guidelines. The FAA is trying to maintain safety in the air from the ground up, he said.

Indiana's Homeland Security Director Sees Drones' Potential

Integrating unmanned flight systems into use for domestic surveillance can provide first responders with key information in responding to fires, earthquakes and man-made disasters, says John Hill, director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, who also noted that the Indiana National Guard’s 181st intelligence Wing at Terre Haute International Airport-Hulman Field has done “a wonderful job” of integrating with local emergency managers.

Hill is a pilot, so understands much about aviation, and says that the biggest obstacle to using unmanned systems in a domestic response is regulations that have not yet been established by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Hill said he hopes the FAA will grant controlled operating areas (COA) for unmanned flights in disasters. “Then the FAA would set up an area to alert pilots to avoid that area while they are doing their surveillance,” Hill said, adding that unmanned systems can also work on the ground, pointing to systems the state obtained in 2005 through homeland security grants to deal with explosive ordnance devices.

Unmanned systems can help fighters battle wildfires, providing escape routes, and can help law enforcement, such as in hostage situations.

“We have to show the value that these devices bring to help us do our jobs better and not encroach on the privacy of individuals,” Hill said.

The public is accepting of unmanned systems when informed about their use, he said. A recent survey “showed that 57 percent of the general public supports the use of unmanned systems,” Hill said. “Also, 88 percent of the general public support the use in search and rescue operations, and 67 percent support it in homeland security missions.”

-- Howard Greninger, The Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, Ind.)

The FAA is relying on a 1981 advisory note to say drones can't be flown more than 400 feet in the air, Schulman said. The agency didn't enforce its regulations until 2007 when Schulman said it began to realize the interest in UAVs was increasing.

“The FAA regulation says landowners don't have any jurisdiction over their land,” said Schulman, the head of an unmanned aerial system law group. “That seems like a contradiction to what the Supreme Court ruled.”

Schulman said a 1946 U.S. Supreme Court ruling gave above ground property rights to landowners, with an exception for navigable air space in the public domain at a minimum safe altitude.

Schulman spoke during the Precision Aerial Ag Show, which was held Wednesday and Thursday at Progress City in Decatur, which hosts the Farm Progress Show every other year. Decatur-based AgEngage organized the event, which was held for the first time to provide information about the technology and demonstrate what can be done with it.

Penton Farm Progress Co. helped to market the event, which made use of Progress City with the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa this year.

The drone technology is ready to take off, particularly in agriculture, but the future remains shaky until the FAA defines the rules as it is mandated by Congress to do by 2015, Schulman said.

The technology has been called into question over concerns about privacy rights and law enforcement use, he said. Some states have made use of drones for surveillance purposes illegal, Schulman said.

Exhibitors at the event were ready to show what the technology can do to help farmers, explaining how easy the systems can be to operate.

“A little computer saavy is necessary for safe operation,” said Jason Watson, a Champaign County farmer explaining the Farm Intelligence system during a flight demonstration.

Judi Graff, a farmer from Middletown in Logan County, said the UAV system she began using in the past year has been useful in scouting fields, particularly after heavy rains.

“It's not hard to learn,” Graff said. “It didn't take very long.”

As the technology is more widely used, Schulman said the UAV industry is expected to have a significant economic impact. It has already generated $13.6 billion in the first three years, with an estimated impact nationally of $82.6 billion between 2015 and 2025, he said.

In that time, Schulman said more than 103,000 jobs are expected to be created, with 1,549 in Illinois related to the industry.

“We know air rights are valuable,” Schulman said.

To make sure farmers find value in using the systems, companies are trying to make their equipment as user friendly as possible.

“You are the master of the flight,” said Baptiste Tripad of SenseFly, a company based in Washington, D.C.

Farmers are able to make more informed decisions with the data that is generated through use of the technology, said Nathan Stein, an application engineer for SenseFly who farms in Iowa.

“I think there is a lot of power in knowing,” Stein said.

North Carolina-based Precision Hawk has been developing the technology for seven years and started its business operation in 2012, Chief Operating Officer Pat Lohman said. Drones had previously been primarily developed for military use, Lohman said.

“Not a ton of people were looking at agriculture at all,” Lohman said. “We saw a gap there nobody was attacking at the time.”

Farmers want to be able to make decisions quickly, he said.

“It's still getting there,” Lohman said. “Things are changing quickly. The information flow has to be consistent.”

Stein said the experience and interaction with attendees during the Precision Aerial Ag Show demonstrated the wide interest in the UAV technology as it can change management decisions.

“Somebody can go home from the show and be full of ideas,” Stein said. “It's awesome to watch everyone's curiosity.”

The bottom line is about helping farmers identify and solve problems, said Bret Chilcott of Kansas-based Ag Eagle.

“It's not a silver bullet,” Chilcott said. “It's about the results, what it can do for the farmer to reduce input costs. It's all about increasing the yields.”

©2014 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)