Tennessee Farmers Shown The Potential In Drones, But Told To Hold Off Using Them

A hobbiest uses a drone to survey a cow pasture. Currently, drones are not allowed by the FAA for commercial purposes without a special permit. Credit: Lima Pix via Flickr

A hobbiest uses a drone to survey a cow pasture. Currently, drones are not allowed by the FAA for commercial purposes without a special permit. Credit: Lima Pix via Flickr

When thousands of farmers gather this week in West Tennessee, they’ll be learning what drones could do for the agricultural industry, at least in the future.

Milan No-Till Field Day is a conference where farmers get together every two years and share the latest techniques in raising row crops. For the first time, unmanned aerial vehicles are on the agenda.

“These drones, even though that word shares the same name with the big planes that the military uses that they strap bombs to, we’re just trying get the word out there that there are a lot of uses for these unmanned aerial vehicles in ag,” says Tim Woodward, an agronomist with Tellus Consulting.

UAVs are primarily being used for getting a birds-eye view of a field in order to spot weed or pest problems, saving farmers the time and energy of walking. And from high up, farmers can see patterns they might never notice on the ground. Some drones even have infared cameras and can stitch high-resolution images together to give a picture that previously would require satellites and manned-aircraft operating at $1,000 an hour.

But it’s a legal gray area.

Woodward will offer a drone demonstration in Milan on Thursday, and he won’t recommend growers buy one just yet. The Federal Aviation Administration still hasn’t issued new regulations for commercial use of drones, which are expected by late 2015 (a recent audit suggests there will be delays).

“Say a farmer were to fly a drone up, and he saw something that he made a management decision off of. That basically puts him into the commercial use classification, which is banned,” Woodward says. “But nobody knows whether the FAA has the teeth to enforce the rules that they say they have.”

Violators have been fined up to $10,000, though judges have questioned and even overturned the penalties.

Some extension agents with the University of Tennessee have also been eager to use quad-copters decked out with cameras and GPS equipment for surveying purposes. Still, they’re holding off bringing them to work.

“If you want to fly over your crops that you’re growing for enjoyment like a garden, that’s fine,” says UT ag professor Mike Buschermohle. “Right now, I’m a hobbyist, but I’d like to start flying them for research purposes. The UAV is just another tool to collect data.”

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