Droning On

Published in the September 2013 Issue Published online: Sep 23, 2013 Tyler J. Baum, Editor
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While sitting in a dermatologist's waiting room several months ago, I was flipping through the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Magazine when I stumbled upon a fascinating article about unmanned aerial vehicles-UAVs-called "The Drones Come Home" by John Horgan.

Referring to them frequently by the vernacular term of "drones," Horgan explains how UAVs are becoming more common in non-military scenarios-local police searching for a fugitive and Custom and Border agents tracking smugglers and illegal immigrants. The potential is there for journalists scoping out public events-our photographer, Steve Smede, actually has his own radio-controlled mini-helicopter for aerial shots-as well as civilians searching for lost pets or even Alzheimer patients. The article also states that they can be used in agriculture for "checking and spraying crops, [and] finding lost cattle."

As our readers have probably noticed in recent months, Oregon State University is all over that. OSU sent out a press release in April, stating that they would be using two UAVs to fly over potato fields in Hermiston and Boardman in an effort to help growers more efficiently use water, fertilizer and pesticides.

According to Philip B. Hamm, OSU professor emeritus and Hermiston extension director, the response OSU received was phenomenal-not only did ag journalists want to report on it, but so did non-ag journalists. In order to accommodate all of them, OSU scheduled their June 26 Field Day in Hermiston for a press conference.

I missed that field day due to prior commitments, but Hamm, as well as Randy Franzen and Luke Borst-the chief pilot and his assistant, respectively-all went out of their way to allow me to stop in the week after Independence Day to see one of their UAVs (the Tetracam HawkEye) in flight, during one of their three-a-week flights.

In this issue, you'll read the story about how such small aircraft can gather so much data in such a small period of time, and what that could mean for growers in the future.

For the time being, anyone who flies a UAV must be an FAA-certified pilot and file a certificate of authorization (COA) with the FAA. And even then, UAV flights by private companies and government agencies are tightly restricted: UAVs are limited to an altitude of 400 feet, and must stay within sight of the operator and away from zones with heavy air traffic. Beginning October 2015, U.S. airspace will be thrown open to UAVs, thanks to legislation signed into law in February 2012.

Once that happens, as Horgan's NG article states, the civilian market for drones could soon dwarf military sales.

As is, there are more than a thousand companies, from tiny start-ups to major defense contractors, in the drone business.

If this year's OSU project proves successful, both this past year and in subsequent years, agriculture could be a big part of that explosion.

"I believe that these things have the potential to change our definition of precision agriculture," Hamm says.