Moultrie Observer

Local News

August 20, 2013

Drones: Is farming's future up in the air?

Demonstration at Expo field shows their potential

MOULTRIE — It’s not exactly beating swords into plowshares, but flight technology used today as a weapon of war could one day be part of farmers’ arsenal to fight weeds and plant diseases.

While the military has led the development of flying drones and law enforcement has been among the first to adopt them to civilian use, commercial applications also are on the drawing board.

For agriculture, unmanned helicopters have been flying this summer over cotton and peanut plots at Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition in Moultrie. The images from those craft can help identify potential problems.

In the future, larger aircraft could be used to spray insecticides and other chemicals, allowing treatment of small areas before an infestation spreads into the entire field.

“This has so much potential,” Glen Harris, a University of Georgia extension cotton agronomist who is part of the team working in trials at Expo said during a Tuesday presentation in Moultrie. “I’m excited to see what the rest of the flights will reveal. I want to see it after it (cotton) is defoliated.”

Joining the university in the project are industrial groups including the Georgia cotton and peanut commissions, Expo, and Guided Systems Technologies, which developed the helicopters. Others involved include the Georgia Center of Innovation for Agriculture, Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace and the Middle Georgia State College aviation campus, which has been conducting the flights.

As part of a $100,000 Center of Innovation research grant, matched by $100,000 from private sources, Harris and UGA peanut agronomist John Beasley have been running trials in plots of five acres each of cotton and peanuts.

When told of the idea, Beasley said, “Very quickly I saw there were opportunities to do things in fields that take an awful lot of time. Thirty years ago there were 14,000 … peanut producers (in Geogia). Now there are about 4,500, 4,000. We’re growing basically the same number of acres, so they’re managing three times as many acres as they were 30 years ago.”

The aircraft can help assess a large field that would take hours to scout by foot, and do it better, he said.

“They can look at these images and look at a spot rather than walking 300 acres,” he said. “Imagine the man-hours it’s going to save. Imagine the preciseness we can have. What I like is the preciseness.”

A flight of the five-acre experimental plots at Expo takes about six minutes, and a Middle Georgia State College member of the flight crew estimated a 400-acre field could be scanned in about half an hour, with the cost of recharging the batteries costing 20 cents.

At the moment, a system of the 25-pound helicopter on display Tuesday would cost between $60,000 and $80,000, said Corban, founder and owner of Stockbridge-based Guided Systems Technologies. While cost-prohibitive to most smaller producers, the price will come down with time.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been tasked with drafting regulations for commercial use for unmanned aircraft by September of this year.

Users will have to receive certification for using the craft, Corban said.

“It opens up all kinds of doors for commercial activity,” he said.


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