FAA working on plan to integrate UAVs in agriculture use

By James Hoorman, Putnam County Extension Educator

Drones are becoming more important in agriculture every day. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been authorized by Congress to finalize a plan for “safe integration” of UAVs (Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles) by Sept. 30, 2015.

According to John Dillard with Farm Journal, FAA will release its proposed regulations for drones that weigh less than 55 pounds this fall. Current altitude limits are 400 feet for flying drones and fixed wing aircraft. Current FAA regulations say “you can fly a drone for fun, but you can’t use one to make money for business decisions.” That interpretation is being challenged and changed with new regulations. However, current drone use is not legal, even for farm use, because it is regulated by the FAA.

John Barker, OSU Knox County Extension Educator specializes in drone education. Barker says there are two types of aerial vehicles: fixed-wing or airplanes and rotary-wing or helicopters.

Each have pros and cons. Airplane pros are they fly faster, they have longer range, generally longer battery life and can carry a larger payload. Airplane cons are they need a mechanical launching assistance, require a bigger landing area, can’t hover and durability is an issue.

Helicopter pros include vertical takeoff/landing, precise positioning (hovering) and low/variable speed capabilities. Helicopter cons include shorter battery life, shorter range and much smaller payloads.

UAVs have a number of agricultural uses. They can help farmers gather data about their farm including real-time aerial photographs of their fields. Farmers can scout for weeds, insects, diseases, plant stands and plant health. Farmers can document wildlife damage, drainage issues, and map and find existing tile lines. Farmers also can use drones to tailor their use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer and other applications based on how much is needed at a specific point in a field, a process known as precision agriculture, saving the grower money from unnecessarily overusing resources while at the same time reducing the amount of runoff that could flow into nearby rivers and streams.

With new technology, there are many components to learn about including onboard equipment and ground stations. Onboard equipment can include your flight camera for fixed photographs, video cameras for real time motion, camera gimbals (gyroscope to determine location), anti-vibration dampners, infra-red cameras, flight controllers (autopilot,) RC (radio controlled) receivers, video transmitters, GPS (global positioning systems) antennas and batteries. Ground station equipment may include remote control equipment, tripods, video monitors, data link transmitter, video antenna/receivers, googles for controlling the AUV equipment and iPad for auto flight. If you like gadgets and new technology, drones and UAVs are constantly changing and being upgraded.

Iain Butler, drone and UAV specialist, offers these UAV tips:

1. Preplan your mission, do a site visit or use Google Earth for site info. Look out for powerlines, airports, tree lines, towers and other safety hazards.

2. The higher you fly, the less images you need, which means less processing time. Also, the higher you fly, the larger the area you can map. Currently, 400 feet is the maximum altitude.

3. Always check your images when in the field to make sure your equipment is working. Fly at noon to limit shadows from vegetation and to maximize your data collection.

4. Use an observer to make sure the equipment is working correctly. It is easy to lose sight of your AUV equipment. Paint your AUV equipment orange. Sooner or later you will crash and orange is a bright color and easier to find.

5. Crop analysis is 20 percent flying and 80 percent data processing. Flying is fun but for agriculture, the payoff is in using the data to increase crop yields. Spend the time using the data to improve your farm.

Agricultural drones range in cost from $2,000 for a cheap plane to around $25,000 for equipment with infrared cameras, sensors and other technology controlled by a pilot. The cost may be steep, but the data collected (from identifying insect problems, watering issues, assessing crop yields) help farmers recover the investment, often within a year.

If you are going to operate a UAV make sure you have adequate insurance. Liability insurance should include personal-injury protection and invasion of privacy. Property insurance covers aircraft damage and whole insurance coverage is more comprehensive but it is difficult to predict what drones will or won’t do. (Potter, Farm Journal, 2014)

For more information about Drones and UAVs, go to the following websites: www.FarmWithDrones.com; Ben Potter, Farm Journal at www.agweb.com/farmjournal/article/sky-high_potential_NAA_Ben_Potter; or FAA website at www.faa.gov/uas.