A Yamaha RMAX flies over a field.
The buzz surrounding drones in recent months has been almost entirely focused on police, FBI, and government use of drones, and of course on Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery service. But in purely economic terms, unmanned aerial vehicles are much more likely to disrupt the agricultural market, at least in the near-term.
The Associated Press reports that some farmers have already begun flying their own drones ahead of Federal Aviation Administration approval for commercial use of drones. There are roughly 2.2 million farms in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Not every farmer is going to buy a drone, of course. But many will. And when it comes to agriculture, drones are a complete game changer.
Not every wedding photographer or filmmaker is going to buy a drone to get a new angle on their shots. For many people, it’s just not necessary. But every farmer has to deal with problems such as pest control, fertilizer application, and crop management, things the EPA says the average farm spends about $109,359 per year. A cheap drone costs a tiny fraction of that, and can help farmers cut costs in lots of ways.
According to Leo Reed, a chemist who licenses crop dusters in Indiana, demand for them in the state has doubled since 2007. In Iowa, agricultural aviation is a $214 million business annually. Crop dusters are also notoriously dangerous. The planes fly just 10 feet above the ground at speeds of about 150 miles per hour. With drones, the pilot is taken out of the equation, and crashes are likely to be in wide-open fields, not heavily populated areas.
A report published in March by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International suggested that drones could create 70,000 jobs in the five years following FAA approval of commercial drones. According to that report, roughly 90 percent of the economic activity surrounding drones will come in precision agriculture and public safety applications.
“Covering and justifying the cost of UAS is straightforward,” the report says. “In the precision agriculture market, the average price of the UAS is a fraction of the cost of a manned aircraft, such as a helicopter or crop duster, without any of the safety hazards.”
It’s not just crop dusting that drones can be useful for, however.
“A variety of remote sensors are being used to scan plants for health problems, record growth rates and hydration, and locate disease outbreaks,” the AUVSI report says. “Precision application, a practice especially useful for crop farmers and horticulturists, utilizes effective and efficient spray techniques to more selectively cover plants and fields.”
AUVSI’s estimates may be overly optimistic, and, being a trade organization, it has a vested interest in getting drones into the air with as few regulations as possible. The group has brushed aside privacy concerns as “distractions” in the past. But they’re not wrong that drones could be hugely helpful in agriculture.
Farmers in some countries have already reaped the benefits of unmanned aircraft: Japan has been using Yamaha’s RMAX unmanned helicopter for more than 20 years. In 2010, 30 percent of Japan’s rice fields were sprayed with unmanned helicopters. Just 57 hectares of farmland were sprayed using manned helicopters in 2011. Unmanned helicopters sprayed 1,000 hectares worth of farmland.
In the United States, using a drone’s camera to monitor crops is one thing, gut using it to spray chemicals is another. After 9/11, some feared that a crop duster could be used to launch a bioterrorism attack. Those fears were unfounded, but using an unmanned helicopter to remotely spread chemicals likely isn’t at the top of the Federal Aviation Administration’s list of projects to approve.
Still, figuring out how to keep small agricultural drones in responsible hands is likely to be easier than figuring out how to keep Amazon drones from crashing into power lines or crowded city blocks.