Unmanned Drones Could Aid Farmers if FAA Allows


By Steve White

Unmanned drones aren't just science fiction or something for military use. Farmers are looking to employ them in the skies above their fields. While it's OK to fly radio controlled helicopters for fun these devices are currently grounded from commercial use -- even on the farm.

Aerial video impressed an audience of farmers this week in Grand Island, watching a cheap camera attached to a small aircraft gets a bird's eye view.

"You can see a lot from the air you can't see from the ground," Dr. Richard Ferguson said.

Researchers from the University of Nebraska think the use of unmanned aircraft holds plenty of potential, especially on the farm.

Ferguson said, "Anything that lets you look down on the crop in growing season can be very useful. Just to tell us about stress the crop is experiencing, patterns of stresses."

Images could help them decide when to fertilize and irrigate.

"Definitely there's commercial applications," Ferguson said. "If crop consultant wanted to be using that in scouting, I think there's great potential for those applications."

Ferguson has also been conducting research on farms around Hastings to assess the wavelength coming off the corn crop. The idea is to fertilize less, and protect wells in the area.

Cameras and sensors are affordable and aircraft technology is constantly improvement. But there's one hurdle that prevents these machines from being cleared for take-off.

Ferguson said, "Technically, commercial use of these is not allowed by the FAA, so for research and hobby use, they are allowed. FAA is revising regulations on commercial use and I expect commercial applications will be allowed, but I expect regulations to go with it."

Farmer Lon Bohn said, "That will need to be worked out and there are concerns with privacy as who's flying over whose property."

The Nebraska Agricultural Technology Association is for farmers on the cutting edge. Drones are far from mainstream, but farmers like Lon Bohn of Gibbon see that day coming.

"Satellites are very nice but data isn't always available and it's not always high resolution. These offer the promise of extra high resolution, real time as needed," Bohn said.

But before they can get high resolution images of their fields, they need resolution from the federal government. Otherwise, these choppers will remain grounded.

The University of Nebraska is experimenting with drones to be used by journalists, to get news video of tornado damage or crowded protests.