On the same day the Federal Aviation Administration officially published new rules governing the commercial use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or drones,) producers at the annual Stiles Farm Field Day near Thrall saw an up-close demonstration of the new technology and heard from Texas AgriLife Research engineers about present and possible future uses for agriculture.
Bob Avant, program director of Texas AgriLife Research corporate relations, suggested during his presentation at Stiles Farm that UAV technology is just now getting off the ground.
“Five years from now — five years is an eternity in technology these days — we will be able to do some very exciting things,” Avant said.
The new FAA rules pave the way for drones to take agriculture into U.S. airspace. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group, estimates that drones could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy in the first 10 years after they’re cleared for commercial use. Of that, agriculture would account for more than $75 billion.
Under the new rules, made public on June 21, the FAA limits most commercial drone operations to daylight hours and requires operators to get certified every two years. The agency had already granted special permission for more than 6,000 commercial uses while it developed the final rules.
Operators can’t fly the drones higher than 400 feet unless a taller building or control tower is in the way. The aircraft has to remain in sight of the operator, and the operators has to be at least 16 years old, pass an aeronautics test every two years for a certificate, and undergo a background check by the Transportation Security Administration.
Dale Cope, associate professor of engineering at Texas A&M, flew a Precision Hawk fixed wing UAV at Stiles Farm. AgriLife researchers at the Brazos Bottom research farm in Burleson County, one of several AgriLife Research teams working with drones, have conducted studies with the fixed wing version, which is like an airplane, and with rotary wing hexacopters and quadcopters, which are like helicopters.
AgriLife Research engineer Alex Thomasson said the fixed wing versions are faster, but the slower rotary blade versions can get closer to the crop. The Precision Hawk UAV is autonomous — it flies itself based on its GPS (Global Positioning System.)
A low-flying airplane passed by just on the other side of U.S. Highway 79 during Cope’s demonstration.
“That would probably be a problem if it was over here,” Cope said. “I’ve had issues with crop dusters before.”
The drones that AgriLife Research scientists work with are equipped with sensors, which can gather data on crop height, soil conditions, moisture content and many other aspects of a field, depending on how the sensor is programmed. Thomasson described the sensor as basically a camera that records information.
The research team used UAVs at Stiles Farm to look for root rot in the field where the demonstration took place. Root rot, one of the oldest diseases plaguing Texas cotton farmers, reduces yield and quality of the fiber.
“Root rot usually lives in one location in a field. A UAV can show you where disease exists in a field. It cuts down on treatment costs because you’re not treating the whole field, just the part where the disease is prevalent,” Thomasson said.
In the near future, researchers expect drones to be able to determine the temperature of sick animals, administer drugs, detect herbicide resistance, measure wheat rust and other diseases, identify stand count, water stress and diseases in corn, and literally dozens — if not hundreds — of other potential uses.
However, Avant reminded the farmers at the Stiles Farm field day that the most exciting technology is still a few years away and he cautioned them against running out and buying a high-end UAV right away.
“You can go to Sam’s Club right now and get a quadcopter for about $500,” he said. “All it does is take pictures, and you fly it yourself. That’s not a bad way to start, because I promise you, you’re probably going to crash it. It takes time to learn. If you want to use the sensor technology now, a crop consultant might be the way to go.”