Farmers adopt drone technology despite FAA ban

The Crop Copter. FOX19/Lisa Hutson
The Crop Copter. FOX19/Lisa Hutson

(FOX19) - When someone says the word "drone" many of us tend to think of secret quiet aircraft used to gather information for the CIA or military. But there is a much different picture on the horizon.

It sounds like an odd pairing but agriculture is on the brink of becoming the first major American industry to embrace drone technology. Proponents say this could mean lower prices at the grocery store, more food and less work but the federal government isn't so sure.

Farming has, is and always will be hard work. At Farm Haven in Union Kentucky, Stuart Ferguson knows that well. Every fall, he spends months walking his corn field crafting the most perfectly confusing corn maze.

This year, one little tool is making his job much easier.

"I'm going to right now look for a really good view of the corn maze and what pattern is in the corn maze," says Ferguson as he straps on a pair of goggles.

"This is called First Person View. FPV," he explains.

[PHOTOS: View from a drone over Farm Haven's corn fields]

It's called an unmanned aircraft vehicle, a UAV, or more commonly known as a drone. A camera is mounted on a small flying helicopter capturing pictures and video from all angles.

"I think I'll fly over the pond," said Ferguson who can see exactly where he needs to cut his trails without ever setting foot in the field.

"I use to do these photos of the corn maze with a balloon. I had a 13 foot blimp. This just seemed like a better option and one person can do the whole thing," said Ferguson.

In less than ten minutes, he completed a task that usually takes hours to accomplish and he's finding even more ways to maximize his time with the help of his drone.

[Web Xtra Video: Stuart Ferguson on the local debate surrounding his drone use]

"Most of the photos I have are for my own personal pleasure but in the middle of winter, if the cows haven't been fed, I do take it up and I go fly out to the cows and see where they are, see if they need hay," said Ferguson. "I'm not going to let this tool that I have and is so easy to use to not do something like that you know."

He's not alone.

Fox 19 traveled to Decatur Illinois where thousands of other farmers are seeing the benefits too.     Farmers from 33 states and half a dozen different countries came to the first ever Precision Aerial AG Show, the official introduction of drones to commercial agriculture.

"Right now, it is in a transition from a toy to technology," said Stu Ellis, the show manager. "It may take 3 or 4 hours to walk a field to make sure you don't have any insects. You don't have any weeds. You don't have any fungal problems. Your fertility program is okay. One of these can do the same thing in 25-30 minutes."

Ellis says Japan has been using the same technology in their rice fields for the better part of a decade, increasing production and efficiency.

"This platform right here is our base platform crop copter," said Brett Haas, a farmer himself.

Haas says he saw the benefits of UAV technology too and along with his business partner developed the Crop Copter.

"You can fly it in two different fashions. You can manually control it with the radio controller or you can fly it with an iPad app or a PC software program," said Haas.

Video, pictures, infrared vision, mapping and GPS tracking are all meant to give farmers a close up never before seen view of their crops solving problems before they start.

"Most people don't think agriculture is a high tech industry. It is," said Larry Herman.

After watching them in action, Herman say drones or UAVS could be just another tool for farmers to stay ahead of demand.

"As you look at the population predictions for growth in the world, we have to become more productive. It's not a matter of can we. It's a matter of we must," said Herman.

But the federal government isn't so sure. The FAA banned the use of commercial UAVS in 2007 only granting authorization to fly drones on a case by case basis. In a statement the Federal Aviation Administration told us so far only two commercial UAVs have been approved. Both of them are only allowed to fly in the arctic. The FAA says if farmers choose to use them, they could receive a warning notice, letter of correction or civil penalty.

"Now whether or not that is legally binding statement from the agency is a legal question that I can't answer on camera," said Attorney Brendan Shulman.

Working for a law firm out of New York City, Shulman is fighting the FAA on behalf of several farmers urging them to loosen restrictions in the interest of economic benefit. Shulman attended the Precision Aerial Ag Show to fill farmers in on the legal restrictions against using drones.

"Agriculture is expected to be the largest market for the use of unmanned aircraft systems so we are talking about billions and billions in potential cost savings and efficiency to farmers and environmental benefits," said Shulman.

Shulman says while some argue these drones could be used for illegal purposes like spying or ease dropping, those violations are already taken care of under peeping tom and stalking laws making the benefits far outweigh the risks.

"If you are worried about invasions of privacy, I don't think it matters what device you are using. If you are actually doing an offensive thing, you are invading someone's privacy. You are taking a picture in a private place, it shouldn't matter if you are using a broomstick or a tripod or a helicopter like these," said Shulman.

As for Stuart, he believes he is in the clear using his UAV only for personal use. He just hopes everyone can one day see the world the way he does.

"I don't know if it's primordial. The desire to fly. The desire to see things from above. I have that," said Ferguson.

The FAA says they hope to issue new regulations on drones and commercial use by the end of the year. Thousands of farmers are already using them despite the ban many of them telling us enforcement by the FAA is rare and risk of being fined is worth the benefit.

The FAA estimates by 2018, more than 7,500 commercial UAVS or drones will be in use in the United States.

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