When Steve Morris began building unmanned aerial systems in the late 1990s, he envisioned flying them over fields and collecting data that would be useful to farmers.
But after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, drones became largely associated with military strikes and surveillance operations. Morris said the technology became the subject of contentious political debates and public paranoia.
“The entire dream evaporated at that point,” said Morris, founder and president of MLB Co. in Santa Clara, Calif. “In an alternate universe, where (drones) rose to prominence through helping the economy, creating businesses and jobs, people would have a different view of them.”
More than a decade later, attention is refocusing on development of drones for commercial purposes. Companies – including Amazon.com Inc., Google Inc. and others – are grabbing headlines with plans to develop drones for deliveries, mapping and entertainment.
But the big boom in unmanned aircraft may come from what’s known as precision agriculture — using high-tech systems to help farmers increase yields and cut costs.
In recent years, consumer-quality drones that are cheaper and easier to fly have become commonplace, but Federal Aviation Administration rules have restricted their civilian use to recreation and research in all but a few cases. That has led Morris and others to market their agricultural drones overseas, where regulations are not as strict.
Sunnyvale, Calif., technology company Trimble began offering agricultural drones in January and is currently selling them in foreign markets. Indiana-based drone-maker PrecisionHawk says it has projects in Canada, South America and Australia.
California farmers and technologists from the Russian River Valley to Silicon Valley say they are eager to put drones to commercial use here at home.
Some, like YangQuan Chen, an engineering professor at the University of California, Merced, envision a new “data drone valley” in the state’s Central Valley, not far from the tech giants and venture capitalists of the Bay Area.
“I see a bright future. That’s the reason I started my lab in the Central Valley,” said Chen, who was doing research with agriculture drones at Utah State University before joining the UC Merced faculty and starting the school’s mechatronics lab in 2012.
The unmanned aerial systems can be programmed to fly low over fields and stream photos and videos to a ground station, where the images can be stitched together into maps or analyzed to gauge crop health. They can also be modified to land and take soil and water samples. One day, they may be used in the U.S. as precision crop-dusters.
“The application of these data drones is only limited by our imagination,” Chen said.