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.”

So, what started the UAV buzz?

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International released its report called “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States” in March this year. The report claims that the integration of UAS in the United States will have an economic impact of $13.6 billion in the next three years, which will increase to $82 billion by 2025. The report also suggests that agriculture is going to be the biggest beneficiary of these unmanned systems.

While UAVs have been used internationally for spraying and surveying in agriculture for years, it seems the AUVSI’s report has played a major role in sparking the buzz this year surrounding domestic UAV use in agriculture. Word of the AUVSI report’s predictions spread, and agriculture started to make sense to many people as the next big step for UAS use. And anyone who’s ever been interested in the subject of “drones” has seemed to jump into the flurry of conversation about unmanned systems’ potential in agriculture.

But Rory Paul, Volt Aerial Robotics CEO and UAS consultant, says that before the AUVSI released its report this year, there were a handful of people in the United States saying the exact same thing (himself included). So the question became: who initiated the AUVSI report? The defense sector initiated it, says Paul.

“What has happened is because of the whole privacy hoopla about UAVs and drones, they [the defense sector] saw that they’re not going to be able to sell their systems into the first responder market – police, fire departments, etc. – because in big cities, people don’t want UAVs or drones flying around invading their privacy,” Paul said. “So where is the natural fit for UAVs? Agriculture. Why? Because it’s low risk. Farmers want the systems; they want the data. And corn and soybeans don’t complain if you take their picture.”

Regardless of where the conversation started, it’s rolling fast now and farmers are starting to see how these systems can help them farm more efficiently. Paul thinks that within the next five years, if there is progressive policy from the FAA that allows use of small UAVs, there could be multibillion-dollar dividends to American agriculture in terms of yield benefits and reduction of inputs to obtain aerial imagery.

“The fact of the matter is that this is going to happen. Individual farmers are going to acquire these systems and they’re going to start using them,” Paul says.

Benefit for farmers?

Paul recalls a farmer he worked with who identified that a section on his irrigation system wasn’t working by viewing free Google Earth satellite imagery. But the images were a year old.

“He could see from last year that there was an issue and he applied it to this year’s crop. If you want to see what’s happening this year, you need imagery that’s taken tomorrow,” says Paul. “Let’s say for example you’ve got nutrient issues, so in part of the field you’ve got a yellow patch. So we can get in there and we can put down more nitrogen. Then you come back with the UAV two weeks later, take the imagery again, and see if there was a result from that prescription. That’s where the real benefit from UAV systems comes in.”

UAVs can obtain a vast array of aerial data by flying over farm fields, and the type of data they collect depends on the camera system the UAV is carrying. Most UAVs carry consumer grade cameras that collect high-resolution still images and video. The user then views the images or footage once the UAV surveys a field to identify abnormal spots that may need to be visited for problems related to nutrients, pests, weeds, moisture or other issues. The benefit lies in being able to scout your fields faster by quickly identifying the problem spots rather than walking a whole field on foot.

GPS-referenced imagery is a more advanced feature that takes the guesswork out of identifying where a problem spot is located in a field. Some of the most advanced camera systems are able to provide thermal and multispectral sensing, which allows the UAV to scan a field and identify abnormalities that can’t be seen by the naked eye or by viewing a basic aerial image.

Manual or autonomous?

Some UAVs are flown manually using a remote controller that directs the vehicle through the air and over a field.

“It’s remarkable how farmers pick up on it so fast. They’re surprisingly really good at this,” says Drew Janes, president of Aerial Precision Ag. The company debuted its UAVs to the farming community at this year’s AgConnect show in January, where they sold 18 of their Multirotor UAV systems. APA’s ready to fly kits are marketed as affordable, easy-to-use systems that come with everything a farmer needs to start taking aerial imagery and videos of their fields quickly. The images and video are then easily transferred to a computer, where farmers can start identifying problem spots in fields and speeding up the scouting process during the growing season. But APA has also hinted it’s working on more advanced, autonomous systems to be launched this fall.

One autonomous system already on the market is the Lancaster Hawkeye Mark III from PrecisionHawk, which the company playfully calls “The Bird.” The user programs in the field coordinates and the type of data they want The Bird to collect ahead of time and then throws the vehicle into the air. On-board sensors make adjustments for factors such as wind conditions and allow the plane to intelligently compute the best way to fly and collect data. After the data is collected, the system automatically returns to the starting point and lands on its own.

“You don’t need to be a highly trained user to do this. We put a lot of technology into a very small package,” says Earon, PrecisionHawk CEO.

Earon says the company has focused on taking all of the diagnostics away from the user so farmers can instead focus on deciding what they want to survey and know about their fields to make decisions on their farm management. “In agriculture, [farmers] are not interested in having to dedicate somebody to be a UAV operator,” Earon says. “They need something that works just like a tool. It has to be easy to use so anyone can use it. They want it to be hands-off as much as they can, and that includes the data side.”

NEXT: Photo gallery - The Spectrum of UAVs for ag