OSU expert says drone rules could improve agriculture

Regulations for unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to go into effect Monday.

Precision agriculture is likely to play a significant role in what is projected to be a roughly $82 billion unmanned aerial vehicle industry, but it will take time to develop, experts said Friday at Precision Agriculture Day at the Champaign County Fairgrounds.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently released its first regulations governing how small drones can operate commercially in U.S. airspace, which are expected to take effect on Monday. For farmers, the technology could provide high resolution images and data to help identify disease, ensure plants are receiving the right mix of nutrients and monitor yields, for example.

But it will take some time for the technology to mature and become more cost-effective before its use becomes widespread, said John Fulton, an associate professor in the office of agricultural engineering at Ohio State University. And farmers need to know the rules before they try to use the technology or potentially face thousands in fines. The rules apply for businesses that are using UAV for commercial purposes, including farming.

“There’s opportunity, the problem is there’s still a cost to have someone do that for you,” Fulton said.

The new rules make the technology more accessible in agriculture, and focus on vehicles weighing less than 55 pounds. For example, the regulations do not require an operator to have a pilot’s license, but they must follow less stringent guidelines like registering the aircraft and passing an exam for certification. Operators must also keep the vehicle within sight, and cannot fly them over crowds or people without permission.

Whether the technology is beneficial now will depend on a farmer’s needs, Fulton said. In many cases, satellite images or an aircraft flying over a field can often produce more images at a lower price. They can also cover a wider area in less time, and carry more sensors than a single drone.

However, drones can provide more detailed images of a field and may be better able to spot details satellites and aerial photography are unable to pinpoint. And as the technology improves, costs will also likely come down.

“There’s a value to that that we don’t want to forget,” Fulton said.

Several area colleges and universities have developed programs to train workers in the emerging industry. Three students have already graduated from Clark State Community College’s initial class in precision agriculture, in which students review data collected by drones to provide valuable information to farmers. And earlier this year, the FAA selected Sinclair Community College as the only community college in the nation to join the FAA’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Center of Excellence.

Clark State was recently awarded a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the precision agriculture program, and has been named a hub for precision agriculture in the state. Clark State will use the grant to update its technology and build a pipeline to attract more high school students into its program, said Larry Everett, professor and coordinator of the precision ag program for Clark State.

Everett agreed the new rules make it easier for farmers to utilize the technology, but said precision agriculture is still a developing industry.

“It’s a tool just like any other so you have to decide when it’s appropriate to use it.”

It’s also possible farmers could combine various technologies to get a better view of their operations.

“Maybe you could use satellite images, which in some cases are free, to spot a problem area and investigate that area more closely with aircraft photos or UAV so you might now have to fly the entire farm but concentrate on those areas where you notice a definite difference.”

Ohio’s history in aviation also gives it an advantage as the industry grows, Fulton said.

“The state of Ohio is committed to this industry and that gives us a leg up,” Fulton said.

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