Agricultural drones: the new farmers' market-II
Engineering and Technology Magazine
The approval procedure is “not a challenge, but it is a lengthy process that farmers and companies really have to commit to, in order to gain the correct permissions,” says James Fleming of Geo-4D UAV, a UK aerial mapping and surveillance firm. Alternatively, farmers can use the services of a company like his, to “increase the yield and make more money without having to invest upfront”. n the US, the FAA has adopted a much more cautious approach. It’s illegal to fly a drone for commercial purposes, and agricultural drones are sold to individual farm operators for ‘personal use,’ putting “a lot of burden on farmer operators to learn how to use them well,” says Brumby. In February, though, the FAA proposed new rules to govern commercial drone use, provided the machine is kept in sight at all times during flight and the operator has passed an ‘aeronautical knowledge test’ and has been vetted by the Transportation Security Administration. The proposal now must undergo public and federal review, which could take months. Once that happens, “the demand for drones in the States is expected to soar,” says Robins. In a recent report, AUVSU estimated that the legalisation of commercial drones in the US could deliver economic benefits worth more than $80bn over the next decade. In Asia, China and Japan are heavy drone users too. In fact, Japanese rice farmers have been using robotic RMAX crop-dusting helicopters for nearly 30 years. Other challenges are the need for longer flight times and greater autonomy of the devices, as well as “ensuring that a drone fits neatly within the existing precision agriculture workflow, meaning its data output files are compatible with existing tractors and suchlike,” says Wade. Brumby notes a lack of software to convert aerial imagery effortlessly into actionable information. “In many ways, it’s much easier to use [often] free public satellite data at large,” he says. But Dinsdale of Ursula Agriculture is certain that soon, data businesses and drone operators will take precision agriculture to the next level, predicting yields with greater accuracy and further cutting environmental losses. This way, a lot more farmers can be like Kunde, and - unlike his forebears - use the combined power of drones and analytics to compete with big agro businesses. Farmers may be getting excited about drones - but how safe is it to have rural skies buzzing with oversized mechanical bugs? “Users of agricultural aerial robots will be working with dangerous chemicals, and have the potential to endanger people, other aircraft and infrastructure,” says David Mascarenas of the National Security Education Center at Los Alamos National Labs. There are dangers aplenty, he says. They can fly into or fall onto people, or collide with manned aircraft; drones could also damage infrastructure such as power lines. Many farms have stacks of hay and tanks full of diesel fuel - a crash into either might result in a huge fire. Also, a drone is just a flying computer, prone to hacking or jamming, which could lead to a crash or worse. Privacy issues might arise should a drone be used to monitor the farm’s employees - or people nearby - in some inappropriate manner. A malicious person could use a drone to stress dairy cows and reduce their milk output. Or, instead of spraying pesticides on crops, drones could be used to spray some dangerous chemicals or biological agents in cities. And because drones can be operated remotely or autonomously, it may be tricky to determine who actually used the robot for a malicious purpose, says Mascarenas. “We may need to make improvements in forensic technology to improve our ability to attribute aerial robots to users.” Nevertheless, “the potential benefits associated with aerial robots outweigh the risks,” he adds. Apart from helping us save water and improve yields, eventually drones may even help the government oversee farming more efficiently, for instance making it easier to monitor the use of pesticides.