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North Carolina State University  is using the Vireo a unmanned aerial vehicle that is no larger than a football in its research at the Vernon G James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth
<p>North Carolina State University is using the Vireo, a unmanned aerial vehicle that is no larger than a football in its research at the Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth.</p> <p> </p>

UAVs: Precision agriculture in truest sense of the word

Unmanned aerial vehicles offers clear benefits for scouting and data management, and farmers will certainly turn to UAVs if they are affordable and contribute to the bottom line, allowing them to apply inputs in a more precise manner.

North Carolina State University’s Rob Austin, who is now conducting research with UAVs at the Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth, N.C., considers UAVs to be precision agriculture in the truest sense of the word.

“UAVs offer real benefits over satellites and manned aircraft,” Austin says. “Because you’re flying so low to the ground, it gives you the ability to control ground resolution. The lower you fly, the greater the ground resolution. You can basically control the ground resolution based on your needs. It’s not a limiting factor like you sometimes run into with satellites or aircraft.”

UAVs will also offer farmers cost savings over satellite imagery and piloted aircraft, Austin believes. “Farmers will be able to acquire higher resolution images at a lower cost,” he said. “For  a couple of thousand dollars, you can get one of these (UAV) systems up and running and gather data that is on par with these other systems at a much lower cost.”

An important first step in the commercial use of UAVs was made with the Federal Aviation Administration’s proposed rules for the technology released Feb. 15. And Austin’s research in North Carolina, a state that was “first in flight” with the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk, will provide much needed information on the technology’s true benefits to agriculture.

UAVs will provide famers more timely and detailed scouting information, allowing them to catch problems before they develop and optimize their yields. With a UAV, farmers can pinpoint areas of a field that need attention and be more precise in applying fertilizer and other crop inputs. 

A promising sign for farmers from the FAA is a separate proposed category of regulations that will allow the use of smaller UAVs, defined as less than 4.4 pounds, that will have fewer restrictions than the larger UAVs, which must weigh less than 55 pounds. The FAA is seeking public comment on regulations for the so called “micro” UAVs, and it critical that the smaller vehicles operate under less regulation than the larger vehicles.

Farmers will likely turn to these smaller UAVs because they will provide a perspective of their fields that they haven’t been able to easily see before without an airplane. Farmers will be able to pinpoint a spot on a field that needs attention, saving both time and money.

The sky is the limit on UAVs in agriculture. It is critical that the FAA’s final regulations be fair and not stifle this technology that is precision agriculture in the truest sense of the word.

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