How Will Drones Be Used on American Farms?

Soon, drones will fly over America’s Bread Basket. Some think they could reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizers.

Farming with drones
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

A while back, we reported on the odd new use for unmanned aircraft—or “drones”—in the fields of America’s farms. Drones are primarily known for their use overseas to target and kill suspected terrorists, but there’s an emerging domestic market for their use in America’s food-producing fields. When a report last month from the trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International stated the vast majority of drones in the United States will probably be used for agriculture, the media frenzy that followed may have left some observers with the wrong idea of what drone farming could entail.

For one, “you’re not going to see Predators flying across the heartland taking pictures of corn,” says Rory Paul, CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics and a leading voice in applying unmanned aerial vehicle technology to agriculture.

So what will they be doing? For answers, we asked a farmer who is already using a UAV in his fields in Idaho—in fact, he claims to be the nation’s first. Robert Blair runs the 1,500-acre Blair Three Canyon Farms in fertile north central Idaho, where he raises cows and grows winter wheat, spring wheat, malt barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and alfalfa. Blair regularly flies his homemade drone, which is about the size of a goose, over his fields to check on general plant health, damage from insects or other wildlife, or weeds. In an aerial photo of Blair’s pea field, taken by his UAV, one can see several clearings where an elk had helped itself to the crops.

Blair, who started flying his UAV on the farm in 2006, says a common misconception is that drones will replace farmers. A drone, he says, is merely another piece of technology that allows a farmer to reduce costs and be more efficient.

“UAVs can’t do anything on their own,” he says. “They are gathering data for me to make management decisions.”

The Federal Aviation Administration bans the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial purposes, but Blair says his use is within the law because he’s not charging people money to fly his drone. By 2015, the FAA has been ordered to have a plan in place to open up the skies to commercial drones, though Rory Paul—whose company makes and markets UAVs—says full legalization could be pushed back several more years.

When that happens, Paul envisions drones being a “permanent fixture” on farms, performing duties that lower farmers’ costs by streamlining their efforts. These include the use of unmanned aircraft for precision crop dusting, he says. Instead of blanketing an entire field with pesticides or fertilizers, a drone could target only the areas that need them, possibly reducing the amount of chemicals that are put on food in the fields.

“Chemical companies are going to hate us when this gets going,” he says.

Blair, on the other hand, says it’d be impractical for him to use the drone he owns to spray his fields because, at less than 10 pounds, it couldn’t lift enough pesticide or fertilizer. 

“I would have to have a UAV the size of a Cessna or bigger to haul enough weight to do the job in a timely fashion,” he says. “It’d be like you going out in a garden to water all your plants with a squirt gun.”

With an increasing consumer demand for cheaper food, drones may be especially attractive to conventional farms that service large agribusiness companies or send their food overseas. But drones may also soon be used by watchdog groups to monitor animal cruelty on farms. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, announced last month that it will be purchasing one or more drones to stalk hunters, but says it “also intends to fly the drones over factory farms, popular fishing spots, and other venues where animals routinely suffer and die.”

Even further down the road, Paul sees another use for drones, albeit a rather bizarre one.

“I can see a future where farmers are using very small UAVs for the pollination of orchards,” Paul says. “There will be no more honey bees, so we’ll have to manufacture them in China.”

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