Unmanned aircraft awaiting FAA approval as a farm tool

AgEagle in Neodesha offers a light unmanned aircraft to farmers to inspect their crops. Data it collects is then sent to a smartphone or tablet.
AgEagle in Neodesha offers a light unmanned aircraft to farmers to inspect their crops. Data it collects is then sent to a smartphone or tablet. Courtesy

AgEagle’s small unmanned aircraft weighs less than 10 pounds and flies over fields, allowing farmers to monitor a crop, check on cattle or discover a drainage problem.

But until the Federal Aviation Administration issues regulations for small unmanned aircraft, farmers can’t legally use the Neodesha-based company’s technology as a farm tool.

But a hobbyist using the same aircraft flying the same mission can – as long as it’s only for fun, said Tom Nichol, head of AgEagle’s business development.

“The moment (the farmer) decides to use those images to make decisions about his crops, he’s now violated rules for airspace safety,” Nichols said. “Anytime you’re using the device to form a business decision, you’re in violation of federal rules.”

Currently the commercial use of unmanned systems is prohibited in U.S. airspace, although the UAVs – or drones – can be flown by hobbyists under certain conditions.

The FAA is working on the rules and regulations to integrate small, unmanned systems into the nation’s airspace.

Nichols doesn’t understand why the FAA permits use of unmanned aircraft for fun but not to help feed people.

The movie industry has applied for and recently received exemptions to operate unmanned aircraft in film and TV-making.

“Apparently, the FAA believes it’s more important for people to see movies than it is to have great quality food,” Nichol said.

The device sold by AgEagle costs about $15,000.

Buyers “aren’t going to be flying it for giggles,” he said. “They’re going to use it in a serious application. They’re going to follow the rules.”

AgEagle officials agree operators should be trained and unmanned aircraft should be registered.

They also agree with the FAA about the need for licensing and regulation.

Founded in 2011, AgEagle has in its short history hosted visitors from across the country and around the world.

Last week, it welcomed potential customers from North Dakota. This month, it expects visitors from New Zealand and Mississippi.

It’s sold 125 units so far.

The United States – despite the legal issues – has been its biggest market to date. But it also has had buyers and potential buyers from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and other countries.

In October, the company announced advances to the unmanned aircraft’s automation and post-flight data processing, something it calls AgEagle RAPID.

“Imagine heading out into the field carrying only the AgEagle flying wing and your tablet or smartphone,” the company said in a media release.

The unmanned vehicle launches automatically and begins tabulating its scan patterns as it ascends. It also adjusts its flight path for wind and other factors and optimizes the camera settings, such as lens focus and shutter speed, the company said.

The unmanned aircraft launches, scans the field and lands automatically, it said.

Within 15 to 20 minutes after landing, the aerial images it captures are geo-referenced – distortions removed and data transferred to the agronomist or consultant’s tablet or smartphone, it said.

“Imagine then being able to immediately physically inspect areas of concern found in the imagery by walking directly to their geo-referenced locations in the field – saving a trip back to the office to process the data, as well as a return trip to the field to ground truth the crops,” the company said in a release.

The AgEagle can cover a lot of acres quickly, Nichol said. It’s a proactive tool for farming.

“It provides them with one more piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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