Project Management Institute

Fields of drones


A drone takes photos in Lodi, Wisconsin, USA.


Drones are poised to become U.S. farmers’ new best friend—if the federal government will let them fly. Right now, farmers tailor their use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to crops and pastures by using sensors in their fields and employing manned planes. Drones would improve this “precision agriculture” because they're cheaper and would fly over fields at low altitudes and immediately report conditions.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) won't issue regulations governing the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in U.S. airspace until September 2015 at the earliest. That puts drone research projects on ice. An FAA notice in June explicitly prohibiting farmers from using UAS “will put us behind on using this type [of] technology to enhance the production of food and fiber,” John Fulton, PhD, precision agriculture specialist, Auburn University Extension, Auburn, Alabama, USA, told Southeast Farm Press in August. “We will be unable to develop the needed sensor systems and processing algorithms to better manage crops and inputs for our Alabama farmers.”

In the meantime, the FAA is executing its own agricultural drone project. The agency announced in August that it will evaluate UAS sensor technologies for scouting fields in Rome, New York, one of six FAA drone test sites across the country.

If and when the federal government gives the green light for using agricultural drones, the payoff for farmers and manufacturers alike could be huge. “There is a potential for a 15 percent improvement in crop yield and a 40 percent reduction in fertilizer usage,” says Mario Mairena, senior government relations manager, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Arlington, Virginia. “And the precision agricultural industry is expected to comprise about 80 percent of the commercial market for unmanned aircraft. It will create an US$11 billion economic impact in the first three years and balloon to US$66 billion within 10 years.” —Bill Atkinson

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