Tuesday Talks With Dr. Patterson

September 2, 2014

On Saturday, August 30, 2014, Auburn University played its first football game of the season at home. Before kickoff, as is tradition, an eagle flew from the upper deck to the field, while Auburn fans yelled the long echoing cry of “war eagle.” This is perhaps one of the most dramatic pre-game traditions in all of college sports. There is great majesty in seeing the eagle fly before the game.

Auburn University has a great interest in other kinds of flying, as well. Specifically, researchers in the College of Agriculture are very interested in developing technologies that will make effective use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in production agriculture. Auburn has the facilities, the research equipment, and the necessary personnel. What it does not have is authorization to conduct this kind of research.

On July 3, 2014 the Federal Aviation Administration placed a ban on flying UAVs for commercial purposes in the United States airspace. The FAA is developing rules for allowing unmanned aerial vehicles to fly for commercial purposes and Congress has given the agency until September 2015 to complete this task. For now, university research, private sector research and development, and agriculture developments are all grounded. Other commercial applications, such as package delivery by companies like Amazon, are also grounded. The FAA has stated that as the agency responsible for air safety above all U.S. territory, it must develop rules that will protect manned aircrafts (e.g. passenger aircrafts) from possible midair collisions, while also protecting all on the ground. These safety concerns are well founded. However, the current ruling is a little confusing when compared to the limited restrictions placed on model airplane hobbyists. Currently, a farmer can fly a UAV over his garden as a hobbyist, but he cannot fly it over his crops, which he will sell commercially.

The delays in advancing research in this exciting area and the development of this new market sector are frustrating to some in agriculture. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems has estimated that 80 percent of all commercial uses of UAVs will likely be in agriculture. The opportunities for UAV applications in agriculture are great. Farmers often have operations on hundreds to thousands of acres, which very often are not contiguously located. UAVs offer a tool for farmers to conduct site inspections using video in a timelier manner. In the West, where ranches are measured in miles, UAVs could be used to inspect pasture conditions, water tank operations, and the condition of a herd. While satellite imagery is already used by some in agriculture, UAVs offer an opportunity to collect data when it is needed with limited impact by cloud cover. Furthermore, the real value from UAVs will be the images and data that are collected using infrared and thermal sensors, which can provide information on plant and crop conditions. This information can then be used to develop plans for the application of inputs using a tractor or even irrigation system. There are even thoughts that larger UAVs may be used in the future for pesticide application.

It should be recognized that the UAVs are just another tool that will be added to current systems used in precision agriculture. Already, there are firms that will offer services to assist farmers in translating data collected from UAVs to information used to make decisions or operate control

systems used to apply agricultural inputs. Indeed, it is estimated that this business sector could create 1,200 new jobs in the agricultural sector and will have an economic impact of about $950 million. UAVs are already being used in agriculture in other countries, including Canada, Australia, Japan, and Brazil.

For now, Auburn researchers will continue to seek FAA authority to conduct research on UAV applications in agriculture. These researchers are anxious to see how UAVs may be used to increase agricultural productivity, while also protecting the environment. They want to fly like eagles. War Eagle!


Dr. Paul Patterson is associate dean for instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.