Another tool in the tool belt, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly known as UAV’s, are finding their way into aviation and more specifically, aerial application. In time, I think drones will have a place in every corner of aviation to some extent. But for now, let’s take a closer look at the use of them in the aerial application and agriculture world. Although the potential impact of UAV’s on agriculture is dynamic, there remains limitations and obstacles for the use in aerial applications.
Initially, we must better understand the benefits and potential economic impacts that UAV’s will bring to different aspects of the agriculture industry. Most of the use of UAV’s in agriculture will be most useful in the form of scouting. The ability to mount sophisticated cameras to drones to get a bird’s eye view with high resolution images will enable and improve the efficiency to scout for various pests or monitor drought conditions. Drones will eventually have the ability to take a picture whether it is with an infrared camera or something similar to be able to detect and monitor insects or disease. In a personal interview, according to Rob Aslesen, aerial applicator in southwest Nebraska, drones will have the ability to get a quick and accurate measure of the pest and its pressure which will assist the farmers in making a timely and cost prohibitive decision to spray or not. The cost and time comparison to evaluating crops by foot is a significant cost savings in favor of UAV’s. The benefits of UAV’s in agriculture are numerous, specifically on crop monitoring, pest evaluation, and rangeland assessment will be highly valuable. I believe UAV’s also have a place in agriculture technology in being able to estimate crop yields and to map acreages for planting, harvesting, and crop insurance losses. There are numerous uses of UAV’s in agriculture popping up around the world. Of course, to be able to select UAV’s as a truly cost effective choice, it will be necessary to develop low-cost systems for farmers to choose from. According to a report by The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, agriculture is expected to make up 80% of the potential commercial market for UAV systems (Doering). The expectation is a huge impact on the world of agriculture. But will, these expectations match the actual outcomes?
On the other hand, keep in mind the obstacles of UAV’s, which include risky high costs and extensive and comprehensive Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. The biggest obstacle at this point is combining manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft into national airspace. From a safety standpoint, the FAA is going to have to give precedence to manned aircraft over unmanned. However, the arguments will often times come from those in the UAV world that say registration and regulation doesn’t matter or apply to them because most UAV’s are so small: what damage could they do? Meanwhile, the FAA and aviators of manned aircraft understand the risks and possible damages that can be incurred. Many have seen firsthand the hazard of a small bird recklessly flying through a windshield, damaging a wing, or caught in the propeller and engine. UAV’s pose a genuine risk to pilots and damage liability to aircrafts, so it is important to keep them apart. As the FAA works diligently on combing these two dimensions of aviation, U.S. transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx made a valid point when he said, “Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiasts are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility.” (U.S. Dept. of Transportation) So in order to coexist in airspace, all aviators will have to adhere to a few new safety and responsibility regulations by the FAA and the EPA.
Realistically, if we are to consider the use of UAV’s in agriculture for aerial application, drones have a long way to come in the rural parts of the Midwest. The downside of UAV’s in large scale agriculture is the ability to accomplish an aerial application job in a timely manner and yet be able to turn a profit for both the custom applicator and the farmer. In a recent article by the Wall Street Journal, a top producer of drones declares, that there are capable of spraying 7-10 acres per hour with a 2.6 gallon spray tank at an initial cost of $15,000 (Byford). Mathematically, at a minimum it would take 35 of these drones to accomplish what one manned aircraft is capable of accomplishing in that same hour. I question whether this would mean there would have to actually be a ground based pilot or multiple custom applicators at each field to operate the drones. Additionally, there would have to be certified personnel and support vehicles to haul product to the field. Rapidly, the costs are adding up and becoming quite extensive. If drones want to compete with manned aircraft there will have to be one comparable in cost and the ability to create revenue.
Agriculture has always benefited from new technology. And although, UAV’s can and will have a large impact on agriculture, I feel their role in aerial application will not be fully embraced, especially in large production areas, without some initial hesitation. Emphasizing again, that national airspace regulations and controlling high costs are major concerns that must be carefully addressed for the integration to be beneficial to farmers and the aerial application industry. As for now, the roar of the large manned aircraft resonates with me as being able to continue to provide rapid, economical coverage of large areas for years to come in the aerial application industry. The confidence in aerial applicators and the large manned aircraft has proven to deliver performance, efficiency, productivity, profitability, dependability and safety which will remain the backbone of aerial application. It’s only a matter of time before technology emerges to offer something industry changing. Perhaps that time is upon us. And with some guided ingenuity and diligent regulation, UAV’s will too find a niche in the aerial application industry as they have in other parts of the world.