Agriculture Drones Fly into New Territory


By Stephanie Tyrpak
By Randy Livingston

BENTON --  Drones have stirred up a lot of controversy in recent years. We often hear about the unmanned aircraft being used by the military overseas, but drones are also coming into wide use here at home. One industry where they may prove especially valuable is farming.

Diving into the drone business didn't start at as a serious idea for McLean Implement. That quickly changed after a John Deere conference in January.
"One of the questions was what services do you provide your customers?," said General Manager Micheal Clark. "As a joke, we said drone surveys. And the instructor said boys you might want to take a look at that."
Jump forward a few months, the southern Illinois company is now an official dealer of Precision Drones. 
General Manager Michael Clark plans to stock a handful of hexa-cops. Each is outfitted with two GPS cameras that snapping pictures every five seconds.
"It stitches all those photos together so you have one image of your entire field both in visible and near-infrared," said Clark. 
It's a fast way for farmers to check on the health of a crop. The drone travels at about 20 miles an hour and more than 350 feet in the air.
"This will give them real time data the day before they spray," said Clark. 
Agriculture is set to be a booming market for drones. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projects 80% of uses will be tied to agriculture. 
However, the technology is taking off before the government figures out the rules.
"There's a lot of safety concerns and a lot of privacy concerns," said Clark. 
Clark has to be cautious with demos. The device stays in sight and over private property to avoid getting in trouble.
The cost to buy the drone, laptop, and software is $17,500. 
McLean hopes to one day rent out a field surveying service for customers. The FAA currently bans drones for hire, so that plan is grounded until the flight regulations are final.
"Farmers have been ringing the phone off the hook wanting to know about it," said Clark. 
Mclean Implement says all staff who work with drones go through data and privacy training. 
The FAA is expected to release proposed drone regulations later this year and finalize them next year.
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