As Rules Get Sorted Out, Drones May Transform Agriculture Industry

Feb 16, 2015
Originally published on February 16, 2015 4:57 pm

On a breezy morning next to a cornfield in rural Weld County, Colo., Jimmy Underhill quickly assembles a black and orange drone with four spinning rotors.

"This one just flies itself," he says. "It's fully autonomous."

Underhill is a drone technician with Agribotix, a Colorado-based drone startup that sees farmers as its most promising market. Today he's training his fellow employees how to work the machine in the field.

"So if you want to start, we can walk over to the drone," Underhill says. "It's got a safety button on here. And now it'll start flying."

The quadcopter zips 300 feet into the air, pauses for a moment and then begins to move.

"It just turned to the east and it's going to start doing its lawnmower pattern," Underhill says.

What makes the drone valuable to farmers is the camera on board. It snaps a high-resolution photo every two seconds. From there, Agribotix stitches the images together, sniffing out problem spots in the process. Knowing what's happening in a field can save a farmer money.

At farm shows across the country, drones have become as ubiquitous as John Deere tractors. The Colorado Farm Show earlier this year included an informational session, telling farmers both the technical and legal challenges ahead.

"I think it's a very exciting time," says farmer Darren Salvador, who grows 2,000 acres of wheat and corn near the Colorado-Nebraska border.

"Can you look at areas of disease concern, insect concern, so now you can be more proactive and treat smaller areas and not treat the entire field," he says.

Salvador and about 50 other farmers got an earful from Rory Paul, CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics, a St. Louis-based drone startup.

"We really don't know what they're good for," Paul says. "We've got a few ideas of where they could really benefit agriculture. The majority of which are still theoretical."

Theoretical because commercial drone use is still widely banned in the U.S.

On Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration released long-awaited draft rules on the operation of pilot-less drones, opening the nation's airspace to the commercial possibilities of the burgeoning technology, but not without restrictions.

Currently, companies may apply for exemptions, but the FAA's requirements to get that exemption can be costly, like requiring drone operators to hold a private pilot's license.

"These small drones, that are almost priced to be expensive toys, are not reliable, and that's a concern of the FAA," says Eric Frew, who studies drones at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

The FAA didn't respond to requests for comment for this story, but Frew says the agency is trying to find a balance. Putting a large flying machine in the hands of someone who's inexperienced can cause big problems.

"When these systems work, they work fantastically," he says. "When they don't work, they don't work."

Back at the cornfield in rural Colorado, Agribotix President Tom McKinnon watches as the drone comes in for a landing.

"We bash the FAA a lot," he says. "I mean the FAA's job is air safety, and they have delivered on that. But when it comes to drones they're badly fumbling the ball."

McKinnon says until the agency gives solid guidance to commercial drone operators, he'll be doing most of his work in countries like Australia and Brazil where laws are friendlier to farm drones.

This story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.

Copyright 2015 KUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://kunc.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Flying drones commercially is something that's mostly banned in the United States, but the government has just proposed some new rules that would keep drones under 100 miles an hour, under 500 feet in the air and away from unsuspecting bystanders. These rules will clear the way for more businesses to use drone technology, and agriculture is one industry that could be transformed. From member station KUNC, Luke Runyon reports.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: On a breezy morning in rural Weld County, Colo., Jimmy Underhill quickly assembles a black and orange drone with four spinning rotors. We're right next to a cornfield, littered with stalks left over from last year's harvest.

JIMMY UNDERHILL: This one just flies itself. It's fully autonomous.

RUNYON: Underhill is a drone technician with Agribotix, a Colorado-based drone startup that sees farmers as its most promising market. Today, he's training his fellow employees how to work the machine in the field.

UNDERHILL: So if you want to start it, we'll walk over to the drone. It's got a safety button on here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE)

UNDERHILL: And now it'll start flying.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE)

RUNYON: The quadcopter zips 300 feet into the air directly above our heads, pauses for a moment and then begins to move.

UNDERHILL: So now it's just turned to the east, and it's going to start doing its lawnmower pattern.

RUNYON: What makes the drone valuable to farmers is the camera on board. It snaps a high-resolution photo every two seconds. From there, Agribotix stitches the images together, sniffing out problem spots in the process. Knowing what's happening in a field can save a farmer money.

(APPLAUSE)

RUNYON: At farm shows across the country, drones have become as ubiquitous as John Deere tractors. The Colorado Farm Show earlier this year included an informational session, telling farmers both the technical and legal challenges ahead.

DARREN SALVADOR: I think it's a very exciting time.

RUNYON: That's farmer Darren Salvador. He grows 2,000 acres of wheat and corn near the Colorado-Nebraska border.

SALVADOR: Can you look at areas of disease concern, insect concern, so now you can be more proactive and treat smaller areas and not treat the entire field?

RUNYON: Salvador and about 50 other farmers got an earful from Rory Paul, CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics, a St. Louis-based drone startup.

RORY PAUL: We really don't know what they're good for. We've got a few ideas where they could really benefit agriculture, the majority of which are still theoretical.

RUNYON: Theoretical because commercial drone use is still widely banned in the U.S. Companies can apply for exemptions from the Federal Aviation Administration, but the requirements to get that exemption can be costly, like requiring drone operators to hold a private pilot's license.

ERIC FREW: These small drones that are almost priced to be expensive toys are not reliable, and that's a concern of the FAA.

RUNYON: Eric Frew studies drones at the University of Colorado-Boulder. The FAA didn't respond to requests for comment for this story, but Frew says the agency is trying to find a balance. Putting a large flying machine in the hands of someone who's inexperienced can cause big problems.

FREW: When these systems work, they worked fantastically. When they don't work, they don't work.

TOM MCKINNON: And it seems like it came farther...

RUNYON: Back at the cornfield in rural Colorado, Agribotix President Tom McKinnon watches as the drone comes in for a landing.

MCKINNON: We bash the FAA a lot. I mean, the FAA's job is air safety, and they have delivered on that. But when it comes to drones, they're badly fumbling the ball.

RUNYON: McKinnon says until the agency gives some guidance to commercial drone operators, he'll be doing most of his work in countries like Australia and Brazil where laws are friendlier to farm drones. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And Luke's story came to us from Harvest Public Media, which focuses on agriculture and food production. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.