The Surprising New Domestic Drone Market: Agriculture

The future of unmanned aircraft in America may be as much about spraying as spying.

Are farm drones the future of agriculture? (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Apr 2, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

You’re probably already aware of the “coming of the drones.” While the U.S. government has had seemingly little compunction about unleashing a stealth fleet of unmanned aircraft in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s been reluctant to allow similar winged bots to take to the skies here. And while much attention of late has been given to how law enforcement agencies might use drones to fight crime (or invade privacy, depending on your point of view), what’s surprising is that, in the drone industry, the real money isn’t on the cops—but the crops.

“Agriculture is gonna be the big market,” Chris Mailey, a VP at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, tells Wired.

Even before the sequestration, the drone industry was preparing for stagnation in the military market, owing to the fact that the U.S. is finally winding down its wars overseas. Law enforcement on the homefront seemed like a natural market (and, in fact, some police drones are already hovering out there, like in Miami), but as Mailey argues in Wired, the market is fixed: there are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., a sizeable portion of which are facing budget cuts of their own.

So what about drones on the farm? Drone boosters (pause: with a phrase like that, it really does hit you that you’re living in the 21st century) enthuse about the range of cool things that drones can do that Old MacDonald could only ever dream about, like detecting fungal diseases in the field well before crops show signs of infection, and thus leading to earlier and more effective treatment.

As Fast Company reports, a Canadian company called CropCam is hawking a GPS-controlled glider plane equipped with a camera that will snap geotagged hi-res images of fields, giving farmers a birds-eye view of which crops are healthy and which need some TLC. Farm drones could also allow for targeted spraying, especially for specialty crops that are either too difficult or too dangerous to spray with manned aircraft. Researchers at the University of California, Davis are experimenting with farm drones for spraying grapes in Napa Valley; over in Japan, where farm drones have been in use since 1990, 30 percent of the country’s rice paddies are sprayed using unmanned aircraft.

How you feel about this probably has a lot to do with whether when you think of “the future” you think of The Jetsons or Bladerunner. And for those of us who happily load our grocery list onto our iPhones, but still like to think of our store-bought chickens as pecking contentedly about in the sunshine somewhere, it’s likely some combination of both.

These glowing reports on what drones might mean for U.S. agriculture typically refer to “farmers,” but let’s be real: If the industry doesn’t think drones are feasible for thousands of law enforcement agencies, small-town family farmers aren’t going to be sending them into the skies over their fields anytime soon.

If the farmer-drone boom does happen (starting in September 2015—but given the pace of the FAA thus far in creating regulations for commercial use of drones, even two-and-a-half years might be too optimistic), then the big boon is going to be for Big Ag.

Who would have thought that the image of a single-engine crop duster lazily buzzing through the blue summer skies would come to seem nostalgic?