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Drones flying high at Farm Science Review

Springfield at center of Ohio’s unmanned aerial systems efforts.Precision agriculture expected to generate billions to the economy.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently doesn’t allow drones to fly over cornfields searching for patches of blight, but likely will soon — sparking an industry that’s predicted to generate more than $82.1 billion within the first decade.

Farmers and ag enthusiasts on Tuesday at the annual Farm Science Review in Madison County were given a firsthand look at drones in flight and were told of the services unmanned aircraft might soon be able to offer them.

For all the concerns about the future use of all-seeing drones by police, agriculture is predicted to be the sector where the technology finds the most use.

Agriculture alone will account for $75.6 billion of the $82.1 billion created by unmanned aircraft systems, according to a widely publicized report released in March by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Based on the reaction to Tuesday’s flight demonstrations at Ohio State University’s three-day showcase of ag tech, the drone industry’s math isn’t at all fuzzy.

“This is the future of agriculture, that’s for sure,” said Jonathan Ursich, a 19-year-old from Centerburg, Ohio, who studies crop management at Ohio State’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster.

Additional flight demonstrations will take place at 2 p.m. today and Thursday at the show, which is held at OSU’s Molly Caren Agricultural Center near London.

The Miami Valley has a huge stake in unmanned aircraft technology — Springfield is home to the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex — but with one out of every seven jobs in Ohio tied to agriculture, drones could very well come to crowd the skies above the state’s many corn and soybean fields.

“If we can begin to detect plant stresses earlier, that could be very useful,” said Rory Lewandowski, an OSU extension agent from Wayne County who was interested in seeing Tuesday’s flight demonstrations above a field far from the main grounds of the Farm Science Review.

Attendees were treated to two flight demonstrations — one by a seven-pound, fixed-wing aircraft developed by Ohio State and one by an equally lightweight multirotor craft being marketed by an Indiana company, Precision Drone, for $17,500.

Both would be used for aerial scouting, with their cameras providing daily, real-time monitoring of crops to locate outbreaks of disease, among other benefits.

Other drones could be used for the precision application of pesticides.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction — and in the recent Bruce Willis movie “Looper,” set in the year 2044, a farmer can be seen launching a drone for crop dusting — but it’s already an established practice elsewhere in the world.

Back in 1983, the Japanese government approached Yamaha about developing an unmanned helicopter to be used for crop dusting in light of a dwindling number of heirs to continue farming and with residential areas spilling into farmland.

Japan has been promoting unmanned crop dusting for rice farming since 1991.

Morrow County landowner Jim Mosher was impressed with Tuesday’s demonstrations and said being able to see the middle of a field would be extremely beneficial.

Mosher owns 110 acres, but his tenant farms 4,000 acres overall.

“He needs to keep an eye on everything,” Mosher said, “and you just can’t do it by driving along the side of the road.”

The FAA is in the process of allowing unmanned aircraft in manned airspace and later this year will select six test sites nationally to help determine safety and privacy parameters.

Ohio and Indiana have jointly applied to host a test site, with the UAS Center and Test Complex in Springfield intended to serve as the site’s base of operations.

Concerns about safety and privacy were apparent even at the Farm Science Review, which is located near both the Madison County Airport and Interstate 70.

At last year’s Review, Ohio State could only display a drone prototype at its booth.

This year, the university was allowed to fly, but not at the main field demonstration site as advertised, where attendees can also learn about the latest in manure application and tillage equipment.

“Not three days before this, we got increased regulations about what we’re able to do here,” said Matt McCrink, a doctoral candidate in aerospace engineering.

Still, interest seems high, according to Aaron Sheller, co-owner of Indiana-based Precision Drone, who brought 2,000 brochures to the Farm Science Review advertising their multirotor farm drones.

“We’re not going to have enough brochures,” he said.

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