Is the United States Government Ready for the Farm Drone Boom?

The bulk of drone usage will shift from military operations to agricultural applications soon, which couldn't make many farmers happier — if the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't ruin the party.

by / June 9, 2014

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, 90 percent of drone usage will be for agriculture. The momentum for drone-assisted farming has been building quietly for a long time — Japan, for instance, has already been using farming drones for about 15 years, and American farmers want to deploy the technology en masse, but the United States' rocky relationship with drone implementation won't make agricultural droning a smooth process, at least not initially. 

Advocates claim that aerial gadgets provide crucial data for more efficient farming. Pilots on the ground control drones equipped with infrared cameras and sensors that collect data on insect activity, watering, livestock migration and crop yields. In some cases, software allows drones to fly on autopilot, eliminating the need for a pilot at all. The imagery and sensor data facilitate efficient farming and save farmers time and frustration

Yet for the most part, America's leaders are unsure how to deal with non-military drone deployment. The FAA currently bans drone use for commercial purposes, but the legal restrictions may eventaully lessen in severity for various reasons. In March 2014, a judge struck down the ban in the case of a man who flew a drone over the University of Virginia's medical campus and sold the footage to an advertising company, and the FAA is considering lifting its drone ban to allow a little more than a handful of TV and film companies to use the technology for film projects. The administration also plans to create guidelines for non-military drone usage by 2015, and has selected six sites for drone testing to support their requirements

But 2015 might bring unpleasant news for farm drone advocates.

James Mackler, an attorney who focuses on drone law, told Smart Planet that he worries that the FAA's regulations won't take agriculture's unique situation into account. "I fear they're going to use a very broad brush, at least initially, and regulate for the most dangerous situation."

Drone usage has been dogged by privacy concerns. People worry about being spied on by lechers or under excessive government monitoring. They also worry about drones malfunctioning and crashing into buildings, people or other aircraft, or just simply falling out of the sky onto hapless civilians. 

However, these dangers aren't as severe on farm lands comprising expansive crop fields devoid of hundreds or thousands of people who live in condensed, urban environments. The reduced danger of human injuries, casualties and property damage may work in farmers' favor.

Wayne Smith, the executive director of the South Dakota Farm Bureau, told USA Today this spring that more than one-third of his state's farmers will use drone by 2017. He expects other farmers to follow suit nationwide.

"It's going to catch on rapidly," he said. "There is just an awful lot of interest in it."
Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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