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Ohio Farmers Await FAA Drone Regulations

New technology waits in the wings for agriculture.  Advocates say unmanned aerial systems – commonly known as drones – will boost crop yields and lighten farmers’ workloads.  But Ohio farmers are in a holding pattern as they wait for FAA regulations. 

I’m standing at the edge of a field in Marion County full of deep green soybean plants. With me is Austin Heil, a young farmer, a drone enthusiast, and the owner of the consulting firm Homestead Precision Farming.  His four-propeller, helicopter-style drone sounds like a swarm of angry bees…

“And so now I’ll power up the ship.  And we’re just going to take the ship, fly it out and bring it back,” says Heil.

The Heil family has been farming in Ohio since 1839.  Austin Heil will help ensure the family embraces the latest 21st century technology.

“And now, it’s ready to fly,” Heil says.

Heil thinks drones are about to dramatically change the agriculture industry.

“If we want to be precise in what we do, we need to have eyes in the sky that are giving us continuous pictures, continuous stories, of what is actually happening out in the field,” Heil says.

Heil says drones can provide that information by photographing acreage using a sophisticated camera and software.   They’ll tell the farmer…

“…what the sun’s doing to what happened three days after a rain.  We can see if we are having any insect damage; we can see where there are some problem areas in the field,” Heil says.

It’s all a part of what’s called “precision agriculture” -- using data to get the most productivity out of every acre. 

Heil would like to demonstrate his drone’s capabilities but he can’t.  The FAA has not yet finalized regulations on how drones can be used.  As it stands now, the only people flying drones are hobbyists – with a few exceptions.  John Barker is an OSU Extension educator in Knox County…

“Using drones in agriculture has been ruled commercial use and the FAA right now does not permit commercial use for drones,” Barker says.

Special permission is occasionally granted but only on a case-by-case basis. 

Scott Shearer, the head of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University, says drones offer farmers a special, unique opportunity.  Shearer says they could have helped farmers make adjustments after this year’s heavy rainfalls.

“Farmers lost a lot of their nitrogen because of the excessive amounts of precipitation.  And again that showed up in those images in terms of where the crop had adequate amounts of nitrogen and where it was really starved for nitrogen so we’ve seen a tremendous amount of things that could be corrected if the farmers had access to that information,” Shearer says.

In Fayette County, near Washington Court House, Mark Bryant and members of his family farm 12,000 acres of soybeans, corn, and wheat.  A drone, he says, could provide valuable information.

“We could have one person that operates a drone, he basically could visit, instead of walking, he could cover so many more acres in a day and actually get clear resolution of what’s going on in a field that probably wouldn’t be visited,” Bryant says.

The Bryants already are processing volumes of information gathered electronically in the field and analyzed in real time.  Drones, Mark Bryant says, may be another technological tool but he’s not quite sure of the role they’ll play.

“I don’t know where they fit in.  I just know that we have to look at every aspect of new technology coming on, and drones are part of new technology as far as I’m concerned,” Bryant says.

Bryant says he’s excited about any new tool that helps productivity.  OSU Extension agent John Barker agrees.

I think it’s going to be another tool but we’re going to see a lot of potential use for drones.  The potential is really great and it’s going to be a really exciting time. 

It’s not known when drone regulations will be released by the FAA.  It could be later this year or in 2016.