Are drones an industry risk or an opportunity? |

Are drones an industry risk or an opportunity?

Amanda Radke
for Tri-State Livestock News

Drones — Industry Risk Or Opportunity?

By Amanda Radke

A National Geographic article published in July 2014 and written by Mary Beth Albright entitled, “How drones will change the way you eat,” discussed the use of drones in a variety of situations. She addressed the concept of a photographer shooting photos without permission, attempting to portray agriculture producers as criminals.

Albright wrote, “Drones will improve the welfare of animals we eat and use for food production. Investigative journalist Will Potter has been long frustrated by state ‘ag gag’ laws criminalizing the use of false pretenses to access a farm for purposes not authorized by the owner (such as photographing animal cruelty). In some cases, the photographer is subject to greater punishment than the perpetrator of animal cruelty. So Potter got creative with a Kickstarter campaign to buy drones and photography equipment to fly over and photograph factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) …

“Actually, our worst problem now is not scab, or even ergot. The biggest issue we’re seeing is all sprout.”
Ben Hetzel, manager of Southwest Grain Elevator

“Titled ‘Drone on the farm,’ the campaign to ‘combine drone photography with investigative reporting’ raised about $75,000–more than twice its original goal–for materials and legal counsel. The rules are still murky about the relatively new area of unmanned flight and photography, so legal challenges are practically inevitable. Whether one agrees with Potter’s goal of exposing factory farms, the general privacy ramifications of allowing contested aerial photography, particularly when drones can cost as little as a few hundred dollars—are troubling.”

The idea of an investigative journalist capturing footage of a feedlot or cow-calf operation is worrisome to producers who fear how aerial shots of their operations might be interpreted and how they might be used to push forward extreme animal activist agendas.

After the article published, drones were a hot topic, with mainstream media coverage discussing ways drones can be used – everything from shooting photos and videos of weddings to one day delivering pizzas directly to individual homes.

Of course, when used correctly, drones can be a friend to agriculture, not a foe.

At the 2014 DakotaFest held on Aug. 19-21 in Mitchell, S.D., drones were a big focus, with four presentations dedicated to discussing the unmanned aerial vehicles.

Drones can be used to spot stressed corn or locate stray cattle using infrared cameras. They can also be used to identify insect problems and water issues, measure crop yields, track wildlife, reduce runoff, and rationalize fertilizer and pesticide use.

Justin Oberman, president at Measure, a a civilian drone service company, spoke at one of the sessions on drones at DakotaFest. He said the benefits of using drones in an agricultural operation far outweigh the costs.

“The use of drones has to demonstrate a positive return on investment,” said Oberman. “South Dakota farmers and ranchers are great candidates for drone usage. Drones can be used by agriculturalists to tackle dull, dirty and dangerous jobs.”

Several drones were on display during DakotaFest for attendees to view. Priced between $2,000 and $15,000, these drones can travel at the speed of 35-40 mph and weigh under five pounds. A drone can be operated with a smartphone or tablet, if the technology has a Wi-Fi extender. A drone can cover up to 1,000 acres in just 30 minutes, offering an efficient way to monitor pastures and fields.

“There aren’t currently clear and specific regulations for drone usage, although they are currently being evaluated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). If a producer wants to purchase and fly a drone, they need to apply for a permit with FAA,” said Oberman.

It is recommended by FAA to keep the drone within 400-ft. of the ground and keep it within sight of the operator.

“The United States has half the world’s air traffic, which is why air regulations are so strict,” said Oberman.

Critics of drones worry that untrained operators will interfere with aerial planes in flight, but advocates believe the machines will soon be a big hit for farmers and ranchers. Drones could be used to improve productivity and profitability, enhancing the sustainability of the operation.

As for the threat of eyes in the sky, time will tell if images taken over private farming and ranching operations can be used in investigative reporting or admissible in a court of law. By 2015, FAA is expected to have a set of regulations in place to ensure that drones are being used in a safe and responsible way.