What If Old MacDonald Had a Drone?

Posted by on Oct 10, 2013 in Featured Stories, Innovation Tuesday | 0 comments

Click to hear Rory Paul of Volt Aerial Robotics discuss with KMOX’s Charlie Brennan the use of drones for farmers. After clicking, scroll to bottom of page.

If you keep up with the news, chances are good that you’ve seen or heard the stories about aerial drones.  The chances are even better that those stories have focused on the use of drones in a police surveillance or military context, and have included concerns voiced by humanitarian groups or privacy advocates.

Rory Paul of St. Louis wants to direct the conversation elsewhere:  primarily, to the use of aerial drones in a way that would ultimately lead to lower food costs, and could help the environment.

Paul is CEO of St. Louis-based Volt Aerial Robotics, a company dedicated to the concept of using drones to benefit farmers.

For centuries, the best way for farmers to survey their land — as they looked for areas affected by disease, drought or pests — was to simply walk it.  More recently, farmers began using small passenger planes and helicopters to look at their fields from the air.  But with plane and copter rentals costing anywhere from three to five dollars per acre and many rental companies requiring a minimum number of acres to be surveyed, those rental fees can easily become cost prohibitive to many farmers, soaring into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Enter Volt Aerial Robotics, and Paul’s vision of equipping farmers with lightweight (six pounds, fully equipped) drones, capable of providing farmers with aerial views of their land for a fraction of the cost of a rental plane.

Paul’s enthusiastic about the potential of agricultural drones, or UAV’s (unmanned air vehicles), and he’s not alone.  A recent study predicted that in a matter of years, the U.S. UAV industry could produce up to 100,000 new jobs and add $82 billion in economic activity. 

The potential uses for such technology are myriad:  UAV’s could allow farmers to inexpensively and quickly map fields, search for patches of weeds, look for nutrient deficiencies and disease, and even locate cattle in faraway pastures.   In a June interview with the Progressive Farmer website, Paul said, “This is instant gratification for crop scouts.  You can stand on the side of a field with a real-time video download and see what is happening in the interior of a field.”  

Paul’s rotary-winged drone costs about $8,000, including an estimated two days of training on the system for the farmer who purchases it – far less than that farmer would pay for continual rentals of airplanes, pilots and photographers.

Another advantage of the drone system – photo quality, clarity and immediacy.   A system such as Google Earth may be free and easily accessible, but provides aerial photographs by satellite, with much less clarity than the high resolution UAV-mounted cameras.  Paul says high-definition cameras aboard one of his UAV’s can, flying at 400 feet, provide a photo resolution of 1-inch per pixel – enough, say to provide a photo of a boll weevil on an individual cotton plant.  And, Paul notes, the photo can be transmitted in real time. 

Despite all of the benefits of agricultural drones, there is one major challenge:  UAV use by commercial farmers is currently prohibited by the FAA, which has expressed concerns about complications with the national airspace.  Paul says the FAA has also expressed security and privacy concerns, something he finds frustrating.  “The FAA should be concentrating on safety, and leave any privacy issues to politicians and security concerns to other government agencies,” he says.  Another of Paul’s frustrations:  the Department of Interior and US Department of Agriculture have remained largely on the sidelines on the agricultural UAV issue.

Paul and other UAV advocates worry that delays from the government will put the US behind other countries in developing and implementing the technology.  Japan, for example, has been using UAV-like technology for its crops since 1990.

Paul says it’s time for the US to jump into the fray, not only in the agricultural sector, but in other areas as well.  “Imagine applying this technology to mining oil and gas.  Imagine what the Army Corps of Engineers would be able to do with high resolution aerial maps in the monitoring of levees.  Imagine this technology helping officials in the inspections of dams and bridges.  UAV’s would give them an additional tool.”   


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