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The drones are coming to a sky near you

Most folks have heard about the use of drones for military purposes, but there is a much better future for these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), as they are officially called, in the world of agriculture. A number of universities and research agencies are already busily investigating their use mainly for crop surveillance of diseases and other production issues. The potential is certainly clear, the research is now trying to find what system and equipment will work best at the least cost. However, the real push is coming from private UAV developers and monitoring equipment manufacturers who see new marketing potential in agriculture applications. A whole swarm of companies in the U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia are already well along with UAV concepts and prototypes. An additional industry inventing unique plant sensors and cameras will probably be created to take advantage of advancing drone technology.

Aerial crop surveillance isn’t new — satellites and aircraft have done it on a limited scale for years. But the results were not always detailed or timely, and cost was a limiting factor. However, the advancement in technology has changed all that. Military drones now seem to be able to read newspapers at 500 feet, do it for hours on end with precise GPS measurements and broadcast the results to a cellphone instantly. With that type of pinpoint accuracy one can envisage new camera technology that will identify what types of insects may be in a field and how many are infesting a crop.

I expect all of that future surveillance will see further development in the use of attack drones that could spray crops against disease and pests in the exact location of the outbreak. That could see considerable saving in herbicides and pesticides in blanket spraying as is now done by ground equipment and large spray aircraft. You would think green groups would be shouting hallelujah with this technological revolution, but I suspect chemical companies may not be as enthusiastic.

Another area that might see the use of drones is in locating and counting livestock on range operations or large feedlots. Helicopter drones could fly over an area at 100 feet and scanners would pick up the tagged cattle. No more riding the range looking for stray or sick cattle. Feedlots would know instantly cattle numbers in pens and fields on any day. It’s not that far fetched — Walmart and other retailers are developing tiny electronic tags that can be inserted onto every item they sell. Those items can then be scanned all at once in a grocery cart and a bill made up instantly. I expect present animal ID tags will be replaced with even more advanced technology within the next five years if the retailers move forward with their technology. Ultra-high-frequency livestock ear tags are already well along with development.

There is a further precedent to this concept. Long-distance electronic monitoring of wildlife with radio collars has gone on for years using directional antennae. More advanced technology using drones could be used to locate the whereabouts of tagged predators like bears and wolf packs. What an advancement to peace-of-mind ranching that would bring to a lot of producers, if you could launch a personal drone to search and locate predators near your livestock.

Of course there is a further extrapolation of this type of technology. Are we that far away from having an ID chip inserted into humans that could be picked up by drone surveillance? That would sure make law enforcement a much more interesting exercise. The number of missing persons would certainly be reduced. If you think that is unlikely, think again, how many parents would not want an ID chip inserted in their kids in case the child is lost or kidnapped? But that opens a whole new can of worms and it’s already a big concern in the U.S.

The Federal Aviation Authority in the U.S. is in the midst of developing a policy on how to regulate the private use of advanced UAVs. At present only hobby-level model aircraft can be used by private citizens without a licence. The concern has to do with privacy. Authorities are worried that more advanced low-cost drones can be used by citizens to spy on other citizens for nefarious, nuisance or even titillating purposes. It gets worse, government agencies could expand their surveillance of the behaviour of citizens.

What if green or animal rights activist groups wanted to spy on a farming or feedlot operation to gather incriminating evidence? They could do this if they were allowed to use advanced drones.

In Canada federal regulations are keeping pace with UAV advancements, agencies are more concerned with safety and sharing airspace with other aircraft. But it’s a whole new world, and advancements in UAV engineering is opening up all sorts of possibilities not just in agriculture but in areas like pipeline inspection, forest fire surveillance and yes, catching speeding cars on highways.

It would seem that the future of drones for use in agriculture would be a great leap forward and make crop production even more efficient and I expect that will come. The problem for authorities and society is to find a way to use UAVs for their positive potential and not allow it to be abused. I expect those concerns are being struggled with as we speak.

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