FAA-Approved Ag Drones Will Soon Hover Over Upstate New York Farms

Is the future of farming a quadcopter?

(Photo: Richard Newstead/Getty Images)

Oct 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

A farmer needs to check on her crops—making sure they’re coming up free of pests and weeds and ensuring the health of the soil. Instead of grabbing a pair boots to venture into the fields on foot, the farmer grabs a joystick and kicks back on the couch.

The low hum of an unmanned aerial vehicle—a drone—flying over the farm replaces the crunch of soil beneath the farmer’s feet. As the farmer navigates the drone, visual, thermal, and multispectral cameras send vital information about the crops back to a nearby computer. More pesticide here, less irrigation there; the harvest will start in this block and wrap up in that one. All that information and more is gathered by drone, without the farmer needing to step outside.

This scene used to be the stuff of science fiction, seemingly years away from becoming a reality of American food production. But the future is now that much closer. Last week, the Finger Lakes Times reported that two New York State crop researchers have been issued the first clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to start monitoring farms in the region using a drone. The two Cornell Cooperative Extension field-crops specialists, Bill Verbeten and Mike Stanyard, will begin flying their Precision Hawk UAV over fields in Genesee County, and they hope to gain clearance to use it across 10 counties next year.

“At the end of the day, we hope to learn if we can replace some of our tasks that take a lot of time on the ground,” Verbeten, who works for the Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops Team, told the Finger Lakes Times. “Counting the corn population would be an example. That’s something that takes a consultant a month to learn in the field.”

The Federal Aviation Administration bans the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial purposes, but the agency has been ordered to have a plan in place to open the skies to commercial drones by 2015. Verbeten and Stanyard are the fifth test group to receive approval by the FAA, having undergone the same written tests and physicals administered to all pilots.

The duo is clearly enthused about drones’ potential to cut man-hours spent inspecting fields while producing highly scientific crop analysis, but not everyone shares their excitement. Elizabeth Henderson, who for 30 years has farmed organic vegetables in Wayne County, N.Y.—one of the counties where the Cornell team hopes to fly drones next year—doesn’t plan on allowing them to fly over her fields. She says a farmer with less than 20 acres doesn’t need a drone, because that farmer “knows the land by being on it and seeing it foot by foot regularly, even daily.” Drones, she believes, will primarily benefit large-scale, industrial agriculture.

“Use of drones will help consolidate control of farming inputs in the hands of the largest corporations and complete the total information in the hands of the government about what we farmers are doing on our land,” says Henderson, who has been on the board of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York since 1989. “The footstep of the farmer is the best fertilizer.”

Drones, she says, will consolidate control among large-scale agriculture by calibrating more precisely the amount of fertilizer or herbicides needed—a problem she and her fellow small-scale, organic farmers don’t have.

As we reported last year, some think drones could actually reduce the amount of chemicals sprayed on our food by allowing farmers to target only the areas that need them rather than dusting an entire field. It may have implications for animal welfare monitoring as well. Last year, PETA announced that it would 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.” Journalist Will Potter is planning to put the military technology to similar use.

Other agricultural experts are working to make drones work for small operations like Henderson’s as well. Dorn Cox, a farmer in New Hampshire and cofounder of the open source agricultural technology sharing platform Farm Hack, is talking with the tech-solution community about ways in which drones can benefit a small farm. In the same way satellite imaging has revealed much about humans’ place within the natural world, he says aerial imaging could help farmers and environmentalists monitor and identify plant health and monitor and manage water quality.

“It all must be done within a healthy social system that is built on trust, not ruled by fear,” Cox says. “That’s why open source is so important.”