Farmers See Opportunity in Drones

(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT) -
Guided Systems Technologies demonstrates its unmanned aircraft at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Ga. (Jared Salzmann/Guided Systems Technologies, Inc./MCT)
Guided Systems Technologies demonstrates its unmanned aircraft at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Ga. (Jared Salzmann/Guided Systems Technologies, Inc./MCT)

The next big thing for Georgia farmers could be drones.

State economic developers say Georgia’s agricultural industry could be one of the areas with the most promising potential for the launch of a commercial drone usage, and they’re intent on showing farmers why.

In the town of Moultrie, nestled in a farm-rich region in the southern part of the state, aerospace firms flew their drones over fields of cotton to show off the technology to farmers attending the Sunbelt Ag Expo in early October.

Drones could offer farmers multi-spectral images of their crops to show which plants need more fertilizer, more water or more nitrogen — an advance in what’s known as “precision agriculture.” And that’s worth a lot, farmers say.

“You can see much more than you can with the naked eye,” said Joseph Driver, a farm manager.

While the Moultrie demonstration flights were done in the name of research, flying drones over farms for commercial purposes isn’t legal yet.

Two Georgia businesses hope to change that, and in recent months submitted applications for commercial drone operations. The Federal Aviation Administration in September approved the first six companies for commercial unmanned aircraft systems, all in film production. It’s yet to be seen which industries will be the focus for the next few rounds of approvals, but agriculture is seen as a logical choice since it could involve drones flown in rural locations away from populated areas.

The approvals of individual companies’ operations are an interim solution, as drone enthusiasts around the country await a blanket FAA rule to allow commercial operations of small unmanned aircraft. The process has been long delayed, but is expected to start by the end of 2014, followed by public comments, and take at least a year to complete.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates the unmanned aircraft industry in Georgia could generate 2,880 jobs by 2025 and yield nearly $280 million in economic impact.

At Fenster Farms, which grows corn, soybeans, peanuts, cotton, wheat and pecans on about 2,000 acres, owner Lanny Fenster sees a big opportunity. He says drones can monitor crops better than “crop scouts” who walk the fields.

“You can find a spot with a disease” with the help of temperature sensory imagery and ultraviolet photography, he said. “We looked through the camera and we could tell exactly what was happening. … We went out to the exact spot. We couldn’t tell by looking.”

That is extremely valuable information, Fenster said.

“Disease — it starts someplace,” he said. “If you could just treat that area, you save on pesticides and make all the people in town happy.” And, he added, you get a better crop.

Fenster is thinking of buying a drone, or going in with two or three other farmers to buy one together.

“We grow over $4 billion worth of peanuts in Georgia every year,” said Steve Justice, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace. “If we can provide a tool that increases their yield 1 percent — 1 percent of $4 billion is big money, and that’s the real impact.”

As progress toward commercial drone operations accelerates, state lawmakers are expected to take up the issue of privacy protections during next year’s legislative session.

“It’s timely at this point for the legislature to act so that operators in the state know what the rules of the road are,” Justice said.

All told, the Federal Aviation Administration has estimated as many as 8,000 commercial drones could be flying by 2020.

“The next 12 months is going to be a real turning point” for the commercial unmanned aircraft market, Justice said. “Next year, we’ll be talking about all the different commercial operations that have started to happen.”