December 12, 2013

How will we get over the regulatory hurdles to put unmanned aircraft to work on the farm?

By Mike Karst, Senior Partner, Entira

Did you know more than 85% of Japan’s aerial crop spraying is done by remote-controlled helicopters? This has been a jackpot solution in Japan given the mountainous landscape and densely populated areas where traditional crop dusting by plane would be a public safety hazard. These small unmanned helicopters are lightweight and fly low to the ground, allowing for very precise chemical application and reduced risk exposure. Today 40% of the rice fields in Japan are sprayed with these helicopters. 

But this isn’t breaking news in Japan—farmers there have been employing this technology for years. Several other countries also have passed regulations that permit unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be used on farms—including Europe, Japan, Australia, South America, and Canada.

In the United States, however, the only unmanned helicopters you’ll find on a farm are those being controlled by curious farmers who are testing to see what they can do.

The lack of regulation for the commercial use of UAVs has us stuck in a holding pattern in the United States. Even so, commercial use of UAVs is forecasted to take a giant leap in the next 12-15 years—potentially generating $82 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2025, according to the Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International. The organization predicts the agriculture sector will be the leading non-military user of unmanned aerial systems, totaling 80 percent of all commercial usage.

But first we need rules. Because of the growing interest and potential demand for this technology, Congress has directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to write regulations on how UAV technology can be used commercially. These regulations aren’t expected until September 2015, but we could see some early allowances for agriculture uses.

Gretchen West, executive vice president of AUVSI, says, “We see ag as the low-hanging fruit. The FAA is very interested in agriculture and sees it as a good test bed for how UAVs can be used commercially. AUVSI is encouraging the FAA to allow use in agriculture prior to the 2015 deadline.”

West explains agriculture uses do not require larger devices like the military uses—the 25-lb. machines used by farmers are light compared to the 200-lb. aircrafts used for military purposes. This, combined with the fact that UAVs would be flown over unpopulated areas when used on farming operations, makes agriculture very favorable as a test market.

“There are some allowances today that enable UAV use on U.S. farms, but most rely on farmers to purchase and use—treating them more like a hobby,” West says. There aren’t many limits on recreational uses of UAVs, meaning a farmer can fly it over his own operation and take pictures and video of anything he wants while adhering to the standards set forth by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). What he can’t do is outsource the equipment for use on other farm operations, or by crop scouts or insurance companies to do the work for him. But as commercial restrictions start to loosen up, organizations will undoubtedly be clamoring to create business plans that integrate UAVs.

The FAA does allow special certifications for public agencies such as universities and the military to test how UAVs can safely be integrated into the national air space. Many universities have conducted (or are conducting) studies on ag applications. For example, The Ohio State University developed an unmanned system prototype to allow creation of an historical database to project future crop yields and soil health. The University of Florida used a small unmanned system to detect citrus disease more precisely than other technologies.

Data Should be the Focus

While regulation is the No. 1 hurdle, public perception is yet another. Mention the word “drone” and it conjures up images of spy aircraft and privacy invasions. Many in the livestock sector in particular look at UAVs with trepidation over concerns for how they might be used for monitoring by organizations that are unfriendly to agriculture.

“Privacy obviously is a big issue, but we believe that debate is misdirected,” West says. “We want to see regulations that ensure the technology is not abused in a way that would violate anyone’s rights. This shouldn’t be about the technology—the same privacy concerns around UAVs also apply to other information technologies: including smartphones, video cameras, and static cameras used for surveillance. So instead of misguiding the issue on UAVs, we should be focused on the data that’s being collected, and how to use and store it.”

UAV technology is going to give farmers more data, more quickly than any other precision ag technology. And, like any other precision ag technology, the potential mountain of data coming from these machines is immense. Knowing what to do with the data and how to put it to work for their operation will be farmers’ greatest challenge. What equipment can it carry? What data can it collect? What analytic systems could be used or created to make sense of the data? By making this kind of data analytics part of their business capabilities, ag companies can help influence and answer some of these questions for the industry.

Entira is growing increasingly interested in this topic, because we believe UAVs are going to create a big opportunity for agribusiness companies in the future.  These units are typically manufactured by companies with little or no agriculture experience. Companies in the military surveillance sector and hobbyist equipment manufacturers are just a couple of non-ag entities that are announcing intentions to dip into the precision agriculture market. Representatives from these industries are starting to show up at precision agriculture trade shows. They don’t necessarily know how to sell to farmers, but you do.  They don’t necessarily understand the unique business facet and complexities of agriculture, but you do. We can help UAVs make their way securely into the supply chain by serving as “subject matter experts,” bridging the gap between companies who make and market UAVs and the farmers who can use them.

What’s Next?

West cautions that there’s a misperception that as soon as the regulations are passed, there are going to be thousands of these UAVs in the air. “In reality, we anticipate incremental changes, because the FAA will still be closely regulating how they’re used. Their allowances for commercial purposes will likely still be very restrictive.”

And that may be a good thing. While UAVs slowly and steadily make their way into the supply chain, agribusiness companies can focus on partnering with the technology experts and sorting out how to best apply them to agriculture. Getting them in the air is the easy part. Putting them to work the right way is what we have to figure out. The industry needs to be on top of this issue to influence legislation, engage farmers, and then be prepared to integrate the technology once UAVs do finally become clear for takeoff. If you would like to explore ways your company can be part of this movement, feel free to give me a call at 901.734.3245 or email mkarst@entira.net.

Read our earlier article on this topic, “UAVs Flying Soon Above a Field Near You.”