Federal regulations hamper agriculture with drones

This scan shows a cornfield seen from a drone. Green and yellow indicate healthy plants and red indicates bare soil, dead plants, or in this case an insect infestation. Image: MSU RS & GIS

By Nicolas Simon
Capital Information Service

In the sky above one of the largest Christmas tree farms in North America, visitors are more likely to hear the whirring of the blades of a drone helicopter than the jingling of Santa’s sleigh.

“We fly over a field and, using drones, we collect images and create 3D models that help us determine the height of trees and determine the number of those trees,” said Kate Dodde, drone pilot for the Dutchman Tree. Farms in Manton in Northwest Michigan, south of Traverse City.

Other Michigan farmers across the state say the use of drones could revolutionize agriculture, but researchers working with drones say federal laws do not meet their needs.

“You have to be in sight of the plane with unassisted vision and you can’t use binoculars. Said Robert Goodwin, project manager for RS & GIS at Michigan State University, which means Remote sensing and Geographic Information System. “You can use additional people in the field with radio contact to keep an eye on it. But, if you are using drones, you are trying to limit the workforce, not get more people into the field.

Agricultural advocates say the regulations confuse farmers who would otherwise adopt the technology.

“I think a lot of farmers are still trying to figure out what they all need to do in terms of regulation,” said Theresa Sisung, industrial relations specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “It depends on what they want to do with their drone.”

Custom software allows the drone to identify the quantity and height of Christmas trees in a certain plot. An inventory like this previously required a team of people taking measurements for each tree by hand. Image: MSU RS & GIS

The Federal Aviation Administration determines the regulations and permits that apply to drones based on their flight height, lift capacity, and commercial or private use, Sisung said.

Farmers found temporary solutions to the restrictions, such as the need to keep the craft in sight.

“We bought a bigger drone; we went from a drone (12 inches) to a 3ft wide drone in bright orange, ”said Dodde. “With that we can fly further and further because we can see it.”

The FAA uses the Advanced Aviation Advisory Committee to regulate commercial drones. Until recently, none of its members represented farmers.

In January, Congress passed a bill introduced by Senator Gary Peters, D-Michigan, which expanded the advisory committee to include organizations and representatives of local and agricultural governments.

“Rural America deserves a seat at the decision-making table, and Michigan farmers must have access to every opportunity to use drone technology to improve their businesses,” Peters said in a prepared statement.

The main use of drones is to monitor and determine the health of a plant by the color of its leaves. Farmers can tell a lot about a crop based on this data, the researchers say.

The Goodwin team works with a drone that carries cameras that collect 10 times more data than previous drones. Researchers can visualize over 500 color spectra to find the best one for an application. Identifying emerging diseases and new insect infestations are two applications of this technology, Goodwin said.

The industry is in its infancy and farmers are discovering new applications daily, Dodde said.

Getting near instantaneous readings is an improvement over the old system of sending an army out into the field with measuring sticks and a score counter, she said.

This is especially true during a nationwide shortage of Christmas trees, which gives the farm an edge over the competition.

“In our industry, you sell a tree based on its height,” Dodde said. “So that really helped, especially at this time when the supply of Christmas trees is limited. “

About Keneth T. Graves

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