Take That, Red Baron
In Virginia, drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are being used to collect fusarium spores and other microbes just above field levels. In California, they have been used to evaluate water stress, which translates into labor, water and energy savings. Everywhere in between, crop consultants, growers and others are waiting to see how they will change agriculture.
Even though UAV use in the U.S. is still restricted to researchers and government agencies, with some allowance for individual property owners, change is in the air. Drones will soon be commonplace in American agriculture. All that is stopping it are FAA restrictions on commercial operation in the U.S. New rules are expected later this year that may allow operation of small systems at low altitudes for agricultural use.
"The first group to be targeted will be police and emergency responders," said Rory Paul, Volt Aerial Robotics. "With 50,000 police departments, they are the Holy Grail for UAV companies. Once that is accomplished, we will see companies targeting agriculture."
UAVs ADOPTED WORLDWIDE
Some agricultural companies are warming up their engines already, so to speak. Trimble recently purchased Gatewing, a Belgium maker of UAVs and developer of image processing and delivery software. Four years ago, Monsanto purchased EarthMap Solutions, with its remote sensing technology that measures chlorophyll content and plant health. AutoCopter Corporation has developed technology that flies, captures data and creates GeoTIFF (GPS referenced) files in the air while operators view the high definition video live through media glasses. Files are immediately converted to distortion-free ortho maps (geometrically corrected or orthorectified).
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, will eventually be commonplace in American agriculture and will benefit crop consultants. CropCam and its parent company MicroPilot, maker of autopilot systems for UAVs, is a Canadian company actively marketing low cost UAVs. The CropCam system includes a controlled model glider with a miniature autopilot, camera, Trimble GPS and software to provide images on demand. Several hundred systems have been sold in Canada and abroad.
"Our original idea was to market it in agriculture for fertilizer and pesticide management in crops; hence the name," said Pierre Pepin, vice president, MicroPilot. "However, our customers have found a multitude of other uses, including checking power lines for bird nests and estimating the volume of gravel in stockpiles. People see what it was created for, but realize it can do other things as well."