Regulations lag for use of drones in farming

By Kristina Jackson

The same drone technology that is used for military strikes in the Middle East is also being adapted by farmers here in Kansas.

Unmanned aircraft systems, commonly called drones, were the topic of a conference Monday through Wednesday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Manhattan.

At a panel discussion Tuesday afternoon, experts described some of the possible uses of the machines as well as the challenges they present.

Drones have plenty of applications in agriculture, they said, but people might have to wait until regulations catch up to reap the benefits.

“The biggest challenge is no longer the technology,” said panelist Deon van der Merwe, professor of veterinary medicine at K-State. “The challenge is the regulatory environment. We have to find a ways to integrate safely into the national airspace.”

Kevin Price, K-State professor of geography, said photographs taken of crops using unmanned systems are superior to the more common satellite photography.

The data allows producers to make decisions like where to apply nutrients to their crops.

Price said for people who are on the fence about the technology, the results speak for themselves.

“Once I started showing them the leaves on the plants in great detail, they started showing a lot more interest,” Price said.

However, getting the equipment in the sky is difficult because of regulatory concerns.

Experts who sat on the policy panel explained some of the challenges facing regulatory agencies. The biggest concern is having more machines in the sky that have to be monitored.

The Federal Aviation Administration handles the rules and procedures for unmanned systems, and panelists said people who want to use drones need to approach the FAA with information to help it find solutions.

Those on the panel said the fastest way to move regulations along is to prove that drones can be used safely.

“You’re going to have to show up with the information,” said Kurt Barnhart, professor of aviation at K-State Salina. “You have to show, these are the risks.”

Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said safety is the first concern when putting more systems into the air.

“It all goes back to safety,” Toscano said.

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