It’s no secret: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are the next big thing in precision agriculture. Small UAVs are replacing expensive manned aircraft to provide real-time, high quality aerial imagery of farm fields in order to more quickly and precisely identify problems as they happen throughout the growing season. What remains a mystery is the timeline for when farmers will be able to begin using these systems to increase yield.

Farmers can’t technically use UAVs to increase their profit yet. Under U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations, UAVs may only be flown for recreational purposes and within 400 ft. of the ground. And while the FAA has been congressionally mandated to come up with a plan to allow for airspace to be opened up for commercial UAV purposes, it’s very unclear what a plan entails and when the airspace will truly be available for commercial use of UAVs.

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In the meantime, university researchers, farmers, and major agricultural companies are already buying these systems to test them out on farms under existing FAA guidelines.

“It’s a great opportunity to collect more information, and there are a lot of different systems out there,” says Ernie Earon, CEO of PrecisionHawk, a UAS manufacturer. “There’s a big difference between different UAV systems, so it’s a very good opportunity to shop around and to see demos where possible. If they [farmers] are able to get an aircraft and can operate it according to the regulations within their jurisdictions, that’s even better.”

“It helps farmers do more with less,” Earon says. “It helps them to see things before they would otherwise see them and be able to react more and more rapidly. It’s definitely a tool that has huge benefits to the industry, and the FAA realizes that.”