Are unmanned aerial vehicles, sometimes called drones, the next game-changing technology in agriculture? Or are they a flash in the pan? Will the Federal Aviation Administration knock them out of the sky before most ever get a chance to soar?
These questions and many more swirled around the large crowds of farmers who visited the first UAV show at the Farm Progress Show site in Decatur, Ill. Based on size of the crowds, one thing is not in question – farmers are interested in this new technology. And based on the number of companies exhibiting and demonstrating their equipment, plenty of companies are ready to sell UAVs.
The technology is evolving and improving as we speak. No one seems to be holding companies back from improving their products and expanding their product lines to meet new needs.
What could hold the whole industry hostage is if the FAA issues rules in the next 12 to 18 months that would basically make using these products for agriculture illegal. Farmers who have bought them and companies sinking money into developing new models are betting that won't happen.
Some observers aren't so sure. It's the 800-pound elephant in the room for the industry.
Assume for a moment that FAA issues rules that allow farmers to use UAVs to scout fields, and also allow commercial use of these products in agriculture. Then the sky is the limit for potential. All bets are off.
Could these devices be used to spray insecticides so humans wouldn't need to be in the field during application? Companies are already developing products that would spray. Could consultants use images to make prescription maps? The technology is already here. It's pricey today, but it exists.
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Will better motors and batteries that last longer be developed, lengthening flying time and range? Talking to people who sell the products available must, that seems like almost a sure-thing? Will the price go down? That's not such a sure thing. Right now, you could buy a UAV to scout your fields anywhere in the range from just over $1,000 to $50,000.
Do you still have use for these UAVs if you also have satellite imagery? Many people say you do – the satellite imagery shows where trouble spots might be. The UAV flight could then help pinpoint exactly where you need to look.
Could you use it to locate tile lines if the soil is bare? Why not? Anything that you could do better if you were 20 feet to 400 feet above the ground would be fair game.
We came away from the show with several impressions. Farmers are interested. What the FAA might do is hard to predict. And last but not least, based on the demonstrations of UAVs at the show, 400 feet is a long, long way up there!