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Grounded: FAA Clips Wings Of Unmanned Aircraft For Ag

August 07, 2014

A.J. Watson

Farmers eager to catapult into Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology recently had their wings clipped by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA announced June 23 model aircraft exceptions are for hobbyist use only. 

While few farmers in the state own UAVs, interest in how the technology could help farmers is growing. 

 “The thing about a UAV is that it gives you a whole new perspective when we talk about agriculture,” said John Fulton, Alabama Farmers Federation professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering at Auburn University. “There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to collect data or images, check cows or go out after a rain to see where water is standing.”

Madison County farmer Brandon Moore considered buying a UAV for his row crop operation.

“We farm 3,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, and we’re working on irrigation as much as we can,” Moore said. “With more irrigation, it gets a little complex trying to manage everything. After the corn gets a certain height, you can’t just walk up to the irrigation system. So you could have a UAV fly over, check the nozzles and end guns.”

Tommy Whitkater of E Mergent RC in Huntsville showcased the technology to Moore on an overcast summer day. Whitaker said his business began as a hobby shop, but on-farm interest in the technology is growing. 

“For me, this all started two years ago when a guy brought a machine (to the shop) from out of state,” Whitaker said. “We’re not just a hobby shop, we’re basically a knowledge base for such products.”

A tablet computer receives a live video feed from the UAV, which can be recorded. While a basic hobby model provides aerial views, it doesn’t include software that can process field data to help map crop conditions. Fulton said UAVs collect information like airplanes and satellites have for years.

“We can attach cameras or sensors to collect anything from infrared, thermal or lidar type data that gives a 3D map,” he said. “Normally, the use of satellites or airplanes might not be timely, or there might be cloud cover. UAVs can collect information when other systems can’t.”

The machines operate on rechargeable battery packs and stay in the air for about 25 minutes.

Fulton said he believes UAVs would allow farmers to be better managers. Farmers are eager to explore the technology, but the FAA must first develop guidelines for commercial use.

 “Technology has always been an important tool in farming and agriculture, but in the last 10 years, the importance has grown exponentially,” Moore said. “As far as deciding on what technology to adopt or not adopt, we have to see a return. We’re constantly trying to evaluate which technologies would give us more information that’s actionable, rather than giving us more information that we can’t do anything with.”

The FAA has banned commercial UAV flights until September 2015. Meanwhile, hobbyists must notify the airport traffic control tower before flying if they are within five miles of any airport. The aircraft must not exceed a 55-pound weight limit.

“To me, there’s two sides to that,” Fulton said. “The ruling is hampering the agriculture industry right now, but I don’t feel like it’s picking on agriculture. I think it’s trying to get rules and regulations in place that will serve all industries.”


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