There's growing interest in the use of unmanned aircraft in agriculture and farmers and ranchers are expected to someday use remotely piloted planes to monitor crops and cattle.
But farm fields likely won't be buzzing with drones this summer. Although unmanned aircraft are expected to revolutionize agriculture, that revolution is still a few years away, said a professor at Kansas State University who has been working with small drones for several years.
"Our planes that we fly are five pounds and they're foam rubber. They can do up to 150 miles per hour and they can go very high," said Price, whose areas of expertise include agriculture and geographic information systems. "But when you're flying a field you're usually flying 45 miles an hour and we're flying under 400 feet in order to stay out of the national airspace."
That's because the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits any commercial use of small unmanned aircraft. The agency isn't expected to issue rules that would allow commercial flights until late next year. So agri-businesses can't legally fly and charge a fee.
Farmers can buy and fly their own drone to check on crops or cattle. But Price, who has a special permit from the FAA for his research, said farmers shouldn't rush into drone ownership.
"I would say there's a lot of ways you can go wrong right now if you're not careful," he said. "There's a lot of planes out there that are not well designed. There's people who are basically throwing together something and putting a camera on it and selling it. So I would advise farmers to do some serious homework before they invest."
The investment can range from a couple thousand dollars to more than $15,000 for some aircraft. There are also cameras and software.
Entrepreneurs are eager to get a piece of the action.
Among them is David Dvorak, who started a business called Field of View in Grand Forks in 2010, expecting FAA rules to be in place in a couple of years. He's still waiting for the rules. So instead of flying aircraft, he's selling cameras and other gear. About 70 percent of his sales are overseas in countries where unmanned aircraft are less closely monitored.
Dvorak said in the United States the companies that survive the next five years will be those who deliver on what they promise.
"Some companies will learn how to do that and buy the equipment and take the steps necessary to execute on that," he said. "I think other companies will just buy the cheapest thing on the market and do a bunch of advertising and go bankrupt that next season."
Agriculture is expected to be a huge market for small unmanned aircraft after FAA rules are adopted. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts a $13 billion economic impact the first three years after rules are in place. Agriculture is expected to account for 80 percent of that economic activity.
Doug McDonald, president of the Great Plains Chapter of AUVSI, fields calls from farmers every day, but most aren't in a buying mood yet.
"There's a lot of interest. I think they're still kicking the tires a little bit," McDonald said. "There's early adopters, they're far and few between right now. The ag producer of today is very technologically savvy. I think he or she is waiting for more concrete numbers before he steps in."
McDonald said farmers are comfortable with remote sensors. They're on combines and planters and probably in the soil of fields. But they also don't like to invest in technology unless it helps the bottom line.
Many farmers now use satellite images to help manage crops. A drawback has been that they can't get satellite images when they want them. That could change with a new generation of small satellites recently launched.
The satellites are expected to provide nearly continuous images of the earth's surface. But Price said that's also a new untested technology farmers will likely look at in the next couple of years.
Price said the economics of unmanned aircraft are still a bit fuzzy because so few farmers are actually using the equipment. But he said on most farms, even a one percent improvement on crop production for a year will pay for the aircraft, and the process doesn't have to be complicated.
Spotting disease or insect infestations early means a farmer can use less pesticide. Fertilizer applications can be fine-tuned based on photos. Those savings can quickly add up.
"The low hanging fruit on this is just surveillance, to be able to survey their field quickly and see what's going on in their field," Price said. "So then they have a better idea of where to go and look in more detail to see what's happening."