The use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones, in agriculture is growing. A recent study by Munich Re America indicated that 74% of U.S. farmers are currently using or considering adopting the technology to assess, monitor and manage their farm. The most common usage is for crop monitoring/health assessment, followed by crop spraying and planting. The study indicated that 84% of the farmers using drones used them at least weekly.
The cost of drones has been dropping and their capabilities are increasing. An entry-level commercial drone may have been $5,000 five years ago but may now be under $1,000, with even better abilities. Some of the updates include better sensors for obstacle avoidance, higher resolution, and infrared cameras.
The quality of the control systems has also seen improvements. The drone pilot can now draw out the area of the flight, set the altitude, and determine the frequency of photos or video being captured. The software then develops the flight path and controls the drone from takeoff to landing, taking photos or video along the programmed flight path. Previously, the flying was controlled manually by the pilot.
Farmers can now upload their drone data to cloud-based software and in a relatively short time, receive a report showing the health of their crops. This allows them to focus their activity, such as the application of fertilizer or additional irrigation, to the portion of the field that needs it, reducing their costs and hopefully improving their yields.
The FAA rules for drone usage have changed significantly over the last few years. FAA’s set of operational rules known as “Part 107” went into effect on August 29, 2016. These rules made it much easier for a person to obtain a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating. Prior to this rule, an exemption had to be filed with the FAA, per Section 333, to be able to operate a drone for commercial use and it had to be flown by a licensed pilot accompanied by a visual observer.
There are a couple of options for a farmer to gather data using drones today. The first process involves buying a drone, learning how to fly it, getting the FAA certification, getting insurance coverage for the drone and buying the control and analysis software. A farmer can also contract with one of the many drone service companies that provide a turnkey service by flying the drone, capturing and analyzing the data, and issuing a report to the farmer.
HSB and our parent company, Munich Re, continue to explore drone usage in support of insurance. We have conducted crop damage assessments using drones, which results in a faster and more accurate claims payment to the farmer. We are also using drones with infrared cameras to inspect the condition of photovoltaic panels at multiple locations like small farms and municipalities.
The use of drones in agriculture is expected to grow steadily as more farmers see the benefit that drones can bring to their farms. Research is being done now to facilitate the possibility of using miniature drones to assist the declining bee populations with crop pollination by having a pilot fly the bee sized drone from flower to flower.
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