The importance of precision agriculture is growing as crop maintenance becomes increasingly regulated and farmers become more cognizant of advances in their field of work. Farming, which is a staple industry on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is being done differently today than just a decade ago, and area farmers are taking note of the changes going on around them.
Recognizing these new trends, the University of Maryland Extension and Wye Research Center in Queen Anne’s County held a daylong event on Aug. 6 to unite local farmers with agricultural educators and representatives from companies developing new technological farming tools. Farmers from across the state made the trek to Wye Island for the event, even if they weren’t in need of upgrading their own equipment. “If you’re not paying attention to all this stuff then you’re a lost ball in tall weeds,” Wesley Brown, a grain and soybean farmer from Talbot County, said after listening to speakers at the event.
“This keeps us up to date with what’s out there.” The event featured exhibitions demonstrating a variety of new land-charting tools, but most of the day’s focus was on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as “drones,” for studying crop growth patterns.
Learning how to fly a UAV for crop scouting is as easy as learning how to play a video game, according to representatives from companies who are looking to sell their sophisticated flying devices to farmers around the country.
Tim Woodward, a precision agriculture consultant and owner of AgriEye Drone, a Virginia company that sells rotary-winged drones to farmers, said that he is able to teach new customers how to operate the drones in a single day’s lesson.
“A lot of guys learn to fly these in just a few minutes,” Woodward said, explaining how to use the remote control to fly his model of drone. “Last one I sold was to a guy who was 75, not a computer guy by any means.”
Woodward briefly demonstrated how to fly his drone while showing a video feed on a projector screen nearby so that observers could see how the drone’s mounted camera captured live video. During the demo, he used the remote control to rotate the camera lens to see multiple angles of the ground below his hovering gadget.
The price of the drone package runs just over $8,000 with a full day of training and a year of support, he said.
Many of the attendees enjoyed the demonstration but said they couldn’t justify spending the amount of money needed to purchase the UAV technology for their own farms.
Farmer John Draper, of Queen Anne’s County, said he wasn’t willing to pay for the machinery but would consider less expensive options using the technology. “If it was something I was going to use, I would just use a scouting service,” said Draper, who spoke humbly of his own 500 acres. “It’s just cost prohibitive for a smaller operator.”
Eric Spates, a grain and hay farmer from Poolesville, also said he would only be willing to pay for a service instead of buying the technology outright. “Some guy was saying they might do a weekly fly-over and take pictures,” Spates said, recalling a conversation he had earlier in the day. “That’s something we might be interested in.”
For farmers who can more easily afford the price for UAV technology, there still may not be a rush to go out and buy expensive equipment just yet. In 2012, the FAA passed a regulation on the use of drone technology in the United States, legalizing it only for recreational and educational use.
For farming or other commercial purposes, use of a drone is technically illegal, but merchants like Woodward say that farmers have nothing to worry about.
“They don’t have an ability to enforce it, they just have guidelines,” Woodward said, referring to FAA restrictions on commercial use of drones. “They have no teeth.”
When the new FAA regulations passed, Congress asked the agency to develop a comprehensive plan to address the use of commercial drones by September 2015, a deadline FAA expects to meet. The agency also states on its website it expects to publish a proposed rule for small UAVs — under about 55 pounds — later this year.
Tom Eberle, who owns a commercial drone company in Annapolis that is set to begin selling to the public in the coming months, said customers are a bit reluctant about buying drones for commercial use because of the law, but he has no plans to back off from selling them. “You can’t wait until the FAA figures out the regulation before you start teaching people how to use these,” Eberle said.