Amazon.com, farmers, search-and-rescue operations and more are interested in possible uses of drones.
Drones, once a tool reserved for stealth military operations, have caught the attention of Midwestern farmers eager to improve their food-growing operations.
Otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles, which are controlled from the ground, drones hold great promise for farmers, who can deploy them to monitor crops far inside their fields and make more accurate decisions about planting, chemical applications, irrigation and other issues that affect crops and harvests.
Unfortunately, government regulation hasn’t kept up with demand — a problem that is stifling innovation and business growth.
The use of drones by the military isn’t a new concept. The British military used radio-controlled UAVs in the 1930s. Since the war on terror began in the early 2000s, drone use by the U.S. military has grown and become more sophisticated. They’re deployed for surveillance, intelligence gathering operations and missile launches. The U.S. military spent $3 billion on drone programs in 2012, according to the Wall Street Journal.
At the same time, civilian and commercial interest in drones has grown dramatically, as simple drones became more affordable and people began to realize potential uses.
Late last year amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos announced the company was working on plans to deliver packages using drones — an unnerving but potentially game-changing idea. Google and Facebook want to get into the drone business because they can help get Internet access to unwired parts of the world.
Aerial photographers, filmmakers, search-and-rescue operations, hobbyists, food deliverers, real estate agents and investors all see potential in the use of camera- and sensor-equipped drones. So do farmers.
As reported earlier in GateHouse Media Illinois newspapers, today’s farmers are becoming more aware of how technology can help them be more successful, have higher yields and develop more efficient operations.
“It’s less fuel, maintenance time, seed cost, fertilizer inputs and stress,” said Justin Fleck, a Riverton man who started Precision Ag Visions, a company that offers sales, service and consulting for high-tech farm equipment, including GPS tools. “Most farmers are skeptical and don’t believe it until they have it.”
Drones, for example, can help farmers map fields, take samples, monitor crops for disease, determine how and where to use pesticides, collect data and more.
But for now, commercial use of drones in agriculture and other business endeavors is forbidden. Farmers, for example, can use a drone over their own fields, but companies that wish to offer the service to farmers are unable to do so.
The Federal Aviation Administration is the holdup. The agency, which oversees the safety and regulation of aviation in the United States, determined that any commercial use of drones is illegal because it has not yet developed regulations for them.
In 2012, the FAA fined a commercial video company in Virginia $10,000 for operating a drone. In March, a federal judge threw out the fine and ruled the FAA has no authority over such a small aircraft.
The FAA says it will appeal the decision to the National Transportation Safety Board, an agency that investigates transportation accidents throughout the country and issues safety recommendations.
Under pressure from Congress, the FAA has said it expects to finish setting up rules for drone regulation by the end of 2015.
By technology standards, that’s a long time to wait. As novelist William Gibson once said, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”
Once rules are approved, experts in the drone industry predict more than 100,000 jobs may be created and nearly $500 million in tax revenue generated by 2025 — much of it from agricultural use of drones — according to an article in USA Today last month.
Oversight and regulation of drones must occur, especially given intense privacy and abuse concerns by U.S. citizens, as well as safety concerns by the FAA. But it should have been a priority for the government long before now.
Until the FAA rules are completed, opportunities for commercial and agricultural innovation are grounded.
— GateHouse Media Illinois