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Unmanned aerial vehicles have agricultural applications

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 03/20/2013 9:08 AM

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AMES, Iowa — Don't call unmanned aerial vehicles "drones" when you're talking to Rory Paul.

"When we hear 'drone,' the popular media has us seeing military predator systems with Tomahawk missiles slung underneath," said Paul, CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics. "What we're talking about are farming implements that fly, that are doing work on your farm."

Paul prefers to call them unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs. He shared how radio-controlled UAVs can be used for crop scouting and other agricultural applications at the Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network Conference in Ames.

Paul has worked with both fixed wing and rotary wing UAV platforms since 2006. He is one of the original members of, a community group that advocates open-source autopilot systems.

Paul said there are different types and sizes of unmanned aircraft —military systems and agricultural equivalents.

"Next time you hear 'drone,' you can ask what type, what size, what it does," Paul said. "I believe they have huge potential to benefit American agriculture."

Micro UAVs, such as the military's BATMAV, is launched with a catapult and operated by a ground control station. The equivalent ARB100-B is used for agricultural scouting in France.

Small UAVs include the military's Raven, and agriculture's MX-Sight, which is used for vegetation stress monitoring in Spain and for monitoring high value nut crops in California.

"There are probably more Ravens in the field today than any other UAV," Paul said.

A much larger system, the Marine Corps Pioneer UAV, provided tactical data during the first Gulf War. The ag equivalent Arcangel 1 is used by ADP in Uruguay to map 1,000s of acres of agricultural land per day.

The agricultural equivalent of the military's rotary wing Shiebel Camcopter is the Yamaha RMAX, which looks like a child-sized helicopter. For more than 20 years, the Japanese Department of Agriculture and Fisheries has certified the Yamaha RMAX and its operators for spraying rice paddies.

Paul doubts that large predator-sized UAVs will ever fly over fields.

"It's the small UAVs that we should be interested in because they can do a lot of work for agriculture," he said.

UAVs operate in national airspace, which is administered by the Federal Aviation Administration and is one of the most complex air traffic systems in the world. Regulations for UAVs are lacking, but Congress has mandated that the FAA create a plan for civilian UAVs by 2015. Private commercial entities must apply for special airworthiness certificates. In the history of the FAA, less than 80 have been issued.

Whether farmers can operate UAVs on their farms for agricultural purposes is a gray area, Paul said. They can fly a radio-controlled plane with an autopilot in it for recreation up to 400 feet.

UAVs can be used for mapping land. It provides high resolution with down to sub-inch accuracy.

Crop scouting is another use. A farmer can stand on the edge of the field with a ground station and see what a UAV camera sees over a field. Farmers can use UAVs to take population counts from multiple spots in the field in a fraction of the time it takes to do on foot.

Spraying, especially spot spraying, is another application. Paul also sees a time when pollination and sampling could be done with UAVs.

"The sky is the limit," he said.

Paul estimates farmers could assemble a functional UAV system for $1,500 although it wouldn't be pretty. On the high end, a UAV system like the one in Uruguay that is used for mapping, would cost $100,000. For $10,000 a good system can be assembled, but costs are dropping rapidly.