Drones give farmers new perspective

By: Mike Hoffman, Yana Jones
By: Mike Hoffman, Yana Jones

HEYWORTH, Ill. -- The buzz is soaring around drones. And now, a new industry has become interested in the benefits of using them to improve their business.

Drones are being used by a growing number of farmers across the country.

You wouldn’t expect to see a drone flying in your backyard, or in your local cornfield, but for some, it’s becoming the new normal.

Farmers came from across the country recently to Farm Journal's first ever drone fly-in event in Heyworth, Illinois.

"I came today to the drone fly-in to expand my knowledge base, I have a UAS right now that I've been flying for normal operation, and any chance I can take to learn more about the technology and inform myself I like to do,” says Bill McDonnell, an Illinois farmer.

They’re not being used to spray the fields like a crop-duster, but they are becoming the “eyes in the skies” over our nation’s farmland.

Aaron Sheller, from Precision Drone, says, “Everybody in the industries' been talking about it, it's going to be that thing, you add this to your farm, it's not going to be the cure-all, but it's going to be that thing that makes you question some of the stuff you're doing, and it's also going to make you do some stuff you normally would never have dreamt you would do."

Some farmers see drones as the next level in the ever-changing landscape of agriculture.

"The drones as we see them are a new exciting technology and I want to be part of it, and I want to learn from others that are in the same field, we're all learning together,” says Donovan Taves, a Louisiana farmer.

When you drive by a cornfield, you see exactly what a farmer sees, the first few rows of crop. By using a drone, you can fly out hundreds of yards to see what’s going on in the middle of the field.

"Getting a bird's eye view of your operation, whenever you want one, instead of whenever a pilot can take you up or hire it done, is a very big advantage of owning a drone yourself," Taves says.

Judi Graff says, "It's made actually scouting and looking at the fields a lot faster, more efficient for us, so you go to a field, you don't actually have to go out there unless you find something on the camera that you need to go out and look at it, so it's just faster, more efficient use of your time."

"What we've been doing is general crop scouting, we actually had a large wind event come through a few weeks ago, and really it made it a lot easier to see what fields looked like after that," McDonnell says.

Farmers can make more informed decisions about their crop in real time, and make changes that could save them thousands of dollars.

"I want today's data, not last year's data, to make decisions with. That real time information is what I'm looking for," Scott says.

There are several questions about the new aerial technology. For one, is it legal for farmers to fly around the countryside?

John Dillard, an attorney at OFW Law, says, "One issue is the FAA hasn't passed any regulations that prohibit commercial drones, so we find ourselves in this awkward area, where we have this technology proliferating, but no real clear legal basis to say they are legal or they are not legal.”

"The FAA regulations... what can we do, what can we not do, I don't know if anybody knows, I don't know if the FAA knows really,” Scott says.

Legal experts say drone regulation remains a gray area. But, there’s some hope on the horizon.

"We can expect to see some type of rulemaking process start up this fall with a goal of having those finalized by September of 2015," Dillard says.

For now, the legality of flying drones for farming, remains, up in the air.

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