Just a few years ago, it would seem more like something out of a bad sci-fi film. But today, the possibility of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) floating over a farm taking pictures or video is a reality.
The unnerving whirring sound and ominous silhouette across the blue rural sky have triggered many opinions and possibilities for the agricultural community.
Rory Paul feels that UAVs, or drones, have many more positives than negatives. Paul is the owner of Volt Aerial Robotics in St. Louis and he sees tremendous potential for their use in agriculture.
“There are several applications we see developing. The simplest one is crop scouting. You could use a simple system like a helicopter or quad copter. The farmer can stand at the side of the field and get a bird’s eye view. There are huge advantages here because right now an agronomist can only see a small fraction of the field. If you see a problem, you get a picture of it and know exactly where it is,” he said. “The next application is mapping. You can use a fixed-wing UAV and you actually map the field creating an up-to- date digital map of the field. This allows the farmer to look at nutrient issues to develop an application plan and, technically, we could probably use precision spot spraying.”
In the distant future, he believes we could see other applications including pollination and population counts.
“I am originally from South Africa where a large seed supplier had been using radio controlled helicopters to monitor their breeding operations. I saw what they were doing and I was hooked,” Paul said. “Here is the U.S., some big farmers are using traditional aircraft and aerial photography, but it is expensive. You can do the same thing with this for so much less. With conventional aerial photography it can cost $3 per acre. By using this technology is literally costs cents on the dollar and you can take so many more photos for less money. That can make a huge impact on farming decisions.”
There are many options with this technology.
“You have a broad price range. A farmer could put together a system for as little as $1,500. The professional grade system I sell for ag use is $10,000, and that comes out of the box and is ready to operate,” he said. “A military grade UAV system can cost $35,000.”
The systems can operate anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour at a time and can fly up to 15 miles away from the operator, though regulations prohibit them from leaving the sight of the operator. Paul came to the U.S. in 2005 with his ideas but soon found a setback with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.
“Commercial use of this technology is not permitted. You can fly them recreationally, but you cannot take that information and include it into any kind of commercial operation,” Paul said. “The FAA regulation against commercial use, though, apparently infringes upon private property rights. FAA is supposed to have a plan in place by 2015, but we could see the situation fan out longer. At the same time, there is tremendous interest in this because it makes sense and farmers are just going to go out and do it. Depending on the day, the FAA could say farm use is commercial or not.”
And, while there are plenty of positive farm applications with UAVs, there are also some concerns. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) generated quite a bit of attention when they announced that they would be monitoring hunters with drones, and in the fine print, farms. Paul said the PETA scheme was more about generating attention than an actual monitoring effort.
“If PETA gets one UAV system, so what? I don’t think it has much merit. As far as I am concerned, it is more of a marketing propaganda tool than something that is actually practical, but any farmer who sees a UAV over his property should notify the FAA straightaway and inform them of that,” he said. “In Pennsylvania, one of these systems was actually shot down by a group of hunters. It has actually happened more than once. This is a gray area right now, but aircraft have rights of access to the air space and shooting one of these down is ill advised. Use the laws that are in place. Get the FAA involved and let them restrict PETA’s activities.”
Currently, the legalities surrounding UAVs are murky at best.
“It is as clear as mud,” said Kristi Kress Wilhelmy, an agricultural attorney at Barrett, Easterday, Cunningham & Eselgroth, LLP. “It used to be that you as a landowner owned from the air to the heavens, but then we got airplanes and the law changed. Now a person can commit a trespass if a person enters or directs an object such as a drone into the area between the land and a certain level in the sky, but that level has not been clearly defined in the courts. It could arguably be 500 feet, so could a drone be trespassing if it is below 500 feet? Maybe, but that drone has to be interfering with the use of your property in some way in order to collect damages. Is it causing anxiety to your animals or a risk of injury? Then it is arguably a trespass or a nuisance. But these are all questions that have never been addressed by the courts.”
“Is it a violation of your privacy? Arguably no. If I am in my backyard where a passerby could see me, I do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” she said. “If someone repeatedly operates the drone at a particular location, it could rise to the level of stalking. What if there is a microphone on the drone? There are laws against wire-tapping. There are many unanswered questions about this and I do not believe these questions are adequately addressed in the law. The FAA is starting to make some rules and regulations about drones, but, for now, if you shoot the drone down it is clearly the destruction of private property.”
The issue then becomes whether you had lawful justification to do so.