US Navy photo by Photographers Mate 2nd Class Daniel J McLain

U.S. Navy photo by Photographers Mate 2nd Class Daniel J. McLain

Drones begin descent on US agriculture

No one is laughing now. Once considered only a cut above remote-controlled toys, drones have proven their potency in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and manufacturers are eyeing U.S. agriculture as a tremendous market opportunity.

Speaking to Wired magazine, Chris Mailey, vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said, “Agriculture is gonna be the big market.”

Wired reports that Japan used drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to spray 30 percent of its rice fields in 2010.

UAV technology is rapidly evolving and drones are already seeing limited use in the wine industry.

In 2012, AirCover Integrated Solutions Corp., a California drone manufacturer, opened a plant in Carroll, Iowa. “UAVs can play a part in helping the American farmer lower costs and increase productivity. Unless an expensive helicopter is hired, or a flyby photo with a plane is done, farmers have limitations in assessing their crops until it’s time for harvest,” CEO James Hill told the Daily Times Herald.

According to the Herald, the AirCover drones measure “about 2-1/2 feet by 2-1/2 feet and 3.7 pounds — are slightly larger than a seagull. The drones, managed from the ground by state-of-the-art computer systems, can climb 80 feet per second, or about four stories per second. They travel horizontally at 45 mph.”

Drone use advocates for agriculture and other commercial industries will have to navigate through a minefield of privacy and legal issues. Lance Gooden, Texas state representative, has introduced a bill that with few exceptions, would ban the use of drones by private citizens — or state or federal law enforcement. WOAI reported the following: "These drones are going to get so cheap that soon you'll be able to buy your own drone at Best Buy," Gooden said.  "You could park it a foot above the ground in your neighbor's back yard and film into their house.  If someone wanted to film your children out playing by the pool and put that video on the Internet ... as creepy as that sounds."

The Federal Aviation Administration, after getting swamped with thousands of drone applications from universities (with a heavy agricultural focus), law enforcement and private citizens, has a 2015 “deadline” to open up U.S. skies to civilian drones. The San Francisco Chronicle reports: "the drone makers have sought congressional help to speed their entry into a domestic market valued in the billions. The 60-member House of Representatives' "drone caucus" -- officially, the House Unmanned Systems Caucus -- has helped push that agenda."

A host of industries are on hold to see what rules and regulations are finalized when concrete laws are laid down. The commercial industry market for drones is extremely difficult to gauge — but the potential is genuinely massive — measured in the billions. The New York Times puts the drone market value at $5.9 billion and growing: "The market for drones is valued at $5.9 billion and is expected to double in the next decade, according to industry figures. Drones can cost millions of dollars for the most sophisticated varieties to as little as $300 for one that can be piloted from an iPhone."

Regardless of how good the drone technology is, the market scope and profit potential for agriculture will hinge on drone costs. Mailey believes farming and drones will be a fit, as he told Wired: “Spraying, watering — there’s a whole market for precision agriculture, and when you put that cost-benefit together, farmers will buy [drones].”

Twitter: @CBennett71

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