Drone gap? US may have one in farming, say experts

A drone flying over vineyards in Pessac, France
Jean Pierre Muller | AFP | Getty Images
A drone flying over vineyards in Pessac, France

The Federal Aviation Administration next month is expected to issue preliminary guidelines on the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems or as they are better known, drones.

For the most part, drones are currently banned in the U.S., while other countries have more open use policy. And it could take months, even years before the FAA finalizes its rules.

That's a problem for many in American agriculture who say the U.S. already is failing to keep up with other nations in drone use that could provide billions of dollars in economic growth.

"We're behind the eight ball when it comes to places like Japan and Australia, which have been using drones in agriculture since the 1980s," said R.J. Karney, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau. "There's an urgency to get the ball moving on this," he said.

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Karney explained that as other countries develop drones, American farmers are missing out on using technology that could help produce more food.

"It's not only the potential users but the developers who are having to play catch up," Karney said.

Tami Griffin, managing director of Aon Risk Solutions' food system and agribusiness practice, said the U.S. is missing out on a big opportunity to help farmers.

"Drones have great potential for mapping and assessing the health of crops and livestock so that producers can know how quickly they need to devote attention to those areas," she said.

Where drones are used

The U.S. armed services use drones overseas. And at home, they are used in American airspace as unmanned aircraft flying border and port surveillance for the Department of Homeland Security.

They are also used in scientific research and environmental monitoring. Various law enforcement agencies and some state universities conducting research are allowed to use drones.

Smaller drones are used as recreational aircraft or "hobby flying." And some businesses can be granted exemptions to use drones.

However, farmers cannot use them.

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That's costing the U.S. economy, according to a report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The report says the drone industry could generate more than $82 billion for the economy in the first decade of its commercial use, with agriculture accounting for $75 billion of that figure.

"The economic benefits are significant," said Chris D'Couto, president and CEO of Neah Power Systems.

D'Couto said his company has entered into a partnership with a drone company to develop fuel cell power for drones that could extend their flying time from the usual two hours to up to eight.

"Our take is that developing countries are more receptive to drones than the U.S. is," he said.

FAA's issues

The main issues confronting the FAA on commercial drone use is twofold: safety and privacy issues.

There's concern drones could harm people on the ground while people's privacy from drones raises civil liberty issues.

In January of this year, FAA Administrator Michel Huerta told a Senate panel looking into drone rules and regulations that, "Even today, we don't have a full and complete understanding of where this is going in the future, and that's one of the things that creates the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenges."

Neah Power Systems' D'Couto said a good place to start would be with farmers.

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"It's important to work out privacy and safety concerns but with farmland you have a lot of open space," he argued. "I don't think they pose much of a safety risk."

Peter Schmitz, CEO of Aon Risk Solutions' aviation practice, said his firm provides insurance for unmanned vehicles and that the dangers posed by drones can't be ignored.

"They can always get in the hands of the wrong people, like laser pointers have become at times," he said. "That's why the government is being so careful."

Schmitz suggested that as long as the FAA had tough regulations regarding drones, such as altitude restrictions, the problems could be worked out.

Waiting on FAA

It's not just farmers waiting on the FAA to come up with permanent rules.

Companies such as Google and Amazon are also interested: Each has said they are developing a system of drones to deliver goods in the U.S. Google's already delivered products in Australia.

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Movie studios are also trying to get into the act. The FAA last month approved applications from six film companies to use camera-equipped drones on certain movie and television sets.

American Farm Bureau's Karney said he hopes the waiting for agriculture is over.

"Not every farmer wants drones or will use them, but it's critical to get this going for the agriculture industry here," he argued. "We are really falling behind."