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Farmers ready for easing of drone restrictions

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Jon Hegeman

Jon Hegeman, greenhouse owner in White Plains with his plants.   Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star

In August, some Alabama farmers might get a bird’s-eye view of their crops and land with the use of drones through new Federal Aviation Administration rules.

Jeremy Wilson, of Lincoln, said he has considered purchasing a drone for his field of corn, soybeans and wheat. He hopes to get a better view of his crops from above, to see which areas are in need of more watering.

“I know some people who have them, and I saw what they can do,” he said via phone last week. “It will help me count my field from an aerial view, and help with irrigation.”

In August, farmers will no longer need approval from the FAA for crop surveys, Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman said via phone last week. Beginning Aug. 29, a new small-drone rule called Part 107 will end the requirement for farmers to receive permission.

“It eliminates the need for companies doing precision agriculture to get approval from the FAA,” he said.

The FAA has granted more than 7,100 exemptions to current restrictions. The exemptions grant businesses and farmers the right to operate drones, Dorr said. Not all of the exemptions are related to agriculture, he said.

John McMillan, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, said drones — unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft — are useful to many Alabama farmers. He said cattlemen have said drones to help herd and evaluate their cattle.

“A good number of our farmers have been using it,” he said via phone last week. “We’ve had younger farmers fly it over crops to test fertilizers.”

McMillan said they will be helpful in the future, as more farmers adopt the technology.

Farmers won’t be the only ones benefitting from drones. Jon Hegeman, of Greenway Plants, a greenhouse company that provides flowers and plants for distribution, said he plans to buy a drone for his greenhouses.

“Right now we handspray our plants,” he said Tuesday. “Our future goal is to map everything out and fly a drone over a perfect grid.” Hegeman said a drone would help spray pesticides and fungicides on his plants using GPS technology.

Some drones designed for farm use are much more expensive than the $500 models on shelves at electronics stores. Hegeman said he is looking at spending $15,000 to $20,000 on an Agriculture Multi-Rotor UAV crop duster sprayer, which can land vertically in narrow spaces.

Large-scale application of pesticides by drones, though, will still be limited under the FAA’s requirements, Dorr said.

 Joseph Quansah, of Tuskegee University’s Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said drones can be used in precision agriculture, a farming concept that allows farmers to collect and measure data from crops in real time.

“A farmer can predict his farm’s yields ahead of time,” he said via phone Tuesday. “The drone allows farmers to measure the amount of energy coming from the farms, and they can know the state of each crop, soil moisture and more.”

Quansah said drones themselves are just platforms, and must have an instrument like cameras attached to be of use.

“Cameras can measure the amount of energy being reflected and emitted through the ground,” he said. “Spectral signatures are measured and used for data. The data can be pulled on the computer to view.”

Earle Thompson, Auburn University unmanned aerial systems manager program manager, said farmers can use eBee drones to survey crops for insects or the effects of drought. He said drones with cameras that have multispectral lenses can pick up images of crops that the human eye can’t recognize. Thompson also said agricultural drones can save time and money.

“You can look at info to see where to put fertilizer wherever it needs to be, and you’re saving money by putting fertilizer in a certain area,” he said via phone Tuesday.

Using a different camera lens with a drone can also enhance farmers’ abilities to locate their livestock, Thompson said.

“With an infra-red lens, you can find that cow,” he said. “You would see a human or a cow that would have a higher heat signature than a plant would.”