Rich Keller
Rich Keller

I cannot believe all of the hubbub about drones flying over farmers’ property. What do farmers have to hide? Will those pictures from the sky prove they are liars about what crop is planted where for insurance purposes, they are illegally pumping irrigation water from a river, or they don’t really own any livestock as reported to the government in the agriculture census? In other words, do farmers want to protect themselves from being discovered as criminals?

Use the word drone and most people think of those military drones used to kill terrorists in foreign countries. Actually, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) shouldn’t be called drones.

Many UAVs hold potential for helping farmers a lot more than ruining a farmer’s privacy. You’ve seen my reports about various UAVs in past issues of AgProfessional and on our website. There is even another reference to UAVs in this issue of the magazine included in the robotics in farming article, page 48.

Pictures from the sky via airplanes and satellites are nothing new, and the high definition pictures that can be gathered are quite amazing. Private helicopters and small airplanes fly across private land constantly and take pictures, too.

But to date, the Federal Aviation Administration and Homeland Security Administration (which does use their own drones) have not cleared the way for unlimited field monitoring by ag retailers and crop consultants using UAVs programmed to fly using global positioning systems (GPS). These UAVs can be equipped with full-spectrum, ultraviolet, infrared and other high-tech cameras and sensors for visual data that can easily be the basis for precision agriculture to help farmers efficiently and profitably grow crops.

Some of this precision data has been gathered for several years using manned airplanes, but clouds interfere. And having a pilot and plane ready to fly to a specific field in a minute’s notice is impossible.

Additionally, the small UAVs can be flown at much lower altitudes and slower than a conventional airplane to capture pictures of sections of a field. A UAV helicopter with wireless communication can actually hover over a small plant to provide a live video feed to a computer screen to see insect damage and plant stress.

So, let’s allow paranoid legislators and farmers to take this technology away from us. At last count, 11 states had bills pending to limit the use of UAV’s, or drones as they are almost universally referred to by the uneducated.

I wrote this column a week after the Missouri House Committee on Agribusiness held a hearing on the “Preserving Freedom from the Unwarranted Surveillance Act.” The sponsoring legislator said it was the legislature’s “obligation to assure that technology is not being used irresponsibly.”

And there was the Missouri Farm Bureau testifying in support of passing the legislation to protect their member’s personal privacy and personal property rights.

During mid-2012, a big uproar in Iowa and Nebraska occurred because of unfounded reports that the Environmental Protection Agency was flying drones over private property in the states. At the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants, I sat next to the EPA official who had to field the calls of the concerned public and inquiries from the media. He said it was a crazy couple of weeks.

The EPA has used conventional airplanes to check out environmental concerns, and that has probably been going on since the agency was founded.

States’ rights cannot be allowed to make a patchwork of the sky from one state to another where UAVs are allowed or not allowed to fly, which would give one state’s farmers an advantage or disadvantage in precision agriculture for the future. As for national restriction on the use of UAVs, we can only try to convince Congress to not be stupid in passing unreasonable UAV restrictions.