The next generation of farmhands might be able to leap over barbed-wire fences and towering cornstalks in a single bound.
Rules restrict use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) now, but the future holds promise for many agriculture uses, said University of Missouri Extension specialists Bill Wiebold and Kent Shannon.
The remote-controlled devices can fly above fields and quickly send information from attached sensors and cameras back to farmers on the ground.
Farmers can download, evaluate and react to data quickly. Dense rows of crops do not obstruct views. Unlike the aging farm population, UAVs are not hampered by medical issues, muddy fields or fence rows. They overcome these barriers to zoom in and immediately send photos electronically to off-farm advisers.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules currently restrict usage, but farmers should plan now for the future, Wiebold told those attending the recent MU Extension Crop Management Conference. He flies UAVs for personal enjoyment and follows “line of sight” guidelines set by FAA.
Wiebold said UAVs can scout for insects and diseases that can’t be seen from the outside of a field. They can scan large acreages from a unique perspective without physical barriers or time restrictions. And there are other benefits. “It’s relatively easy and fun,” he said.
Sensors and cameras can let farmers assess plant size, crop maturity, stand density, nutrient needs, stress and pests, among other things. Producers can check on livestock, fences and equipment with a bird’s-eye view.
Data collected by UAVs helps farmers make plans for the current season and can be archived for future management decisions, Wiebold said.
Shannon said costs run from $1,200 to about $4,500 for models suited for agricultural use. UAV owners can expect crashes and errors as they learn.
The Associated Press reported in December 2014 that the United States lags other countries in developing safety regulations that would permit a wide array of industries to use UAVs. The FAA bars all commercial use of drones, except by 13 companies that have been granted limited-use permits. Europe and Canada have issued more than 1,000 permits each, and 180 Australian operators have received permission to fly. Japan has allowed UAVs to monitor and spray crops for more than a decade.
Wiebold said it’s important to follow FAA rules, but the rules may change again in 2015. “We need to be good stewards of this technology like we have been with other technologies,” he said.
Current guidelines say UAVs may fly no higher than 400 feet and must remain within the operator’s line of sight.
What’s possible with UAVs? “The sky’s the limit,” Wiebold says. “Well, at least 400 feet.”