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Farmers urged not to drag their feet on drone technology

By Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

A leading drone researcher says agriculture will be the primary beneficiary of the technology's economic impact.

SAN ANTONIO — Eighty percent of the economic impact from the advent of drone technology will be in agriculture, an expert in remote sensing said during a seminar held at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention.

Kevin Price, a Kansas State University professor, said there will be 10 times more applications for agriculture than in other fields, and farmers should get with the program.

“Now is not the time to be dragging your feet if you want to get into it,” Price said.

In a fast-paced seminar that resembled a college lecture, Price showed how he’s used unmanned planes and helicopters equipped with cameras and sensors to document wheat field damage, track spray drift and locate sickly plants in large fields.

Using light-weight, battery-powered planes equipped with sensors, “You can fly for an hour and cover 2,000 acres at one-inch resolution, in a little foam plane,” he said.

Price’s seminar was one of the most popular break-out sessions held during the convention, with approximately 200 people attending, many of them standing at the back of the conference room.

Price said an industry group study projects a $13.6 billion economic impact related to drone technology in the first three years, and $82 billion by 2025. The same study predicts the technology will bring 34,000 manufacturing jobs in the first three years, and 70,000 other jobs. Price said California and Washington will be the top two states for using drone technology. In Oregon, they could be put to excellent use over vineyards or other specialty crops, he said.

But Price said the U.S. is “way behind other countries,” because the Federal Aviation Administration has not yet approved drones for commercial use. The agency is concerned about safety, but is developing rules to assimilate drones into the national airspace by 2015. In the meantime, university researchers and hobbyists can fly them below 400 feet.

“If we’re going to use them we’ve got to be very, very good stewards and not mess up,” Price said. “If we mess up, they’re going to shut us down.”

Unmanned planes weigh about 5 pounds and have a wingspan of about 5 feet. Models made to date can be programmed to fly over fields in overlapping patterns, collecting images that can be downloaded and electronically “stitched” together.

“One of biggest challenges is extracting useful decision-making information from tons of data,” Price said.

In the audience, West Virginia cattle ranchers David Ash and Mike Merinar speculated drones could be used to find cows that had wandered from pastures or to pick up the thermal images of predators.

“We’re in the infancy, but it’s going to be interesting,” Ash said.


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