Industry analysts predict that once the unmanned aircraft industry is fully developed, some 80 percent of its use will be in agriculture.
So people in the agronomy department at Kansas State University are working with the unmanned aerial systems department at KSU-Salina on ways unmanned aircraft can be used to monitor crops and livestock.
On Tuesday, K-State invited various public officials, industry professionals and the news media to Great Plains Joint Training Center for a demonstration of the technology.
“Unmanned aerial systems are a tool for even better management of the landscape,” said Gary Pierzynski, chairman of K-State’s department of agronomy.
“If a farmer is wanting to check a field, he can walk the entire field — and nobody wants to do that in 100-degree heat — or spot-check and risk missing something,” Pierzynski said.
A small, unmanned aircraft, equipped with an off-the-shelf camera, can photograph an entire section of land in less than an hour, he said, with a resolution that can see individual leaves.
And that information can be in a farmer’s laptop computer within minutes of the flight being completed.
For the time being, Federal Aviation Administration rules restrict the commercial use of unmanned aircraft in the national airspace, which is why the demonstration flights were in the restricted airspace of the Great Plains Joint Training Center.
But Kurt Barnhart, executive director of the applied research center at KSU-Salina, said the airspace over farmland will be among the first areas that will be opened to unmanned flight.
“We have a very complex and very safe airspace system in this country, and to integrate these systems into that is a tall order,” Barnhart said. “It will start with a gradual process … starting with low-impact areas where there are no people around if something goes wrong, prove our operations there, and it will become more accepted.”
He acknowledged that unmanned aircraft are an “often misunderstood and sometimes maligned technology” but hoped the demonstration of their use in agricultural applications would help.
Don’t call them drones
Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, based in Arlington, Va., was also present for the demonstration. He repeatedly asked people not to refer to the unmanned aircraft as “drones.”
“When people hear ‘drones,’ they think military, weaponized and hostile,” Toscano said. “These are none of those things.”
Still, the military lineage of modern unmanned aerial systems crept into his vocabulary, as he described their use in “providing situational awareness for the farmer” or how detailed data on fields could allow for “precision strikes on areas of insect infestation.”
“You may ask, ‘Why is this important?’ ” Toscano said. “In the next 37 years, by 2050, we’re going to have another 2 billion people on this planet. We’ve got to come up with better ways to produce more product with the same amount of land.”
From an environmental perspective, he said, detailed data on a field can allow a farmer to use less fertilizer and pesticides.
Toscano and Barnhart both also emphasized that unmanned aerial systems is something of a misnomer, as lots of people are involved in building, maintaining and using them.
A report from Toscano’s organization published in March predicts that by 2025, unmanned aerial systems will be a multibillion-dollar industry, employing more than 100,000 people in the United States.
And Toscano noted that because of the heavy predicted use of unmanned aerial systems in agriculture, Kansas will rank seventh in number of jobs and economic activity generated.
In Kansas, the AUVSI study projected, nearly 2,000 people will be working in the field by 2025, with an annual economic impact of $361 million.
“There’s nothing unmanned about unmanned aerial systems,” Toscano said.
Sen. Jerry Moran took a lead role in 2012 legislation requiring the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace by 2015, and was present for Tuesday’s demonstrations.
“We are the aviation capital of the world, and this state feeds the world,” Moran said. “Bring those two things together, and you create all kinds of opportunities.”
And while he sees great potential for unmanned aircraft to boost crop yields, and in applications such as search and rescue and other disaster operations, he understands the concerns of people who are worried about privacy.
“I certainly have all kinds of concerns about privacy in all aspects of our lives and the role of government in our lives,” Moran said, explaining that part of the FAA’s role in drafting rules for unmanned aircraft is to “restrict their application for privacy purposes. I’m going to be paying a lot of attention to that issue. The civil libertarian in me wants to make certain it’s done in a reasonable, rational way and that Americans’ rights to privacy are respected.”