Opinion Columns & Blogs

Drones could do more to help farmers, with help from Congress and the FAA

Being a farmer has never been easy, but in recent years the challenges have been increasing. Between droughts, trade tensions, and economic pressures, the agriculture industry needs a way of adapting to a changing landscape.

The solution could come from something most people would not normally associate with agriculture: unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

I have worked with farmers on strategies to incorporate new technology into their operations. New innovative tools have the power to make farms more efficient and more environmentally sustainable—two missions that are supported by UAVs.

We have all seen the incredible photos that UAVs provide from the air, but they can also take pictures of crops. Drones empower farmers with an inexpensive tool that allows close monitoring of their land. UAVs installed with infrared and sensors can fly overhead and pinpoint crops that are not getting enough water or are displaying warning signs of disease. This makes the agriculture industry more sustainable by taking the guesswork out of farming and opening the door to using ever more precise amounts of water, pesticides, and fertilizers.

That saves money while also reducing environmental impact. The opportunity from UAVs is so great that PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the global market for UAV-powered solutions in the agriculture industry is over $34 billion.

However, there are hurdles in the way of realizing the potential of unmanned drones.

UAVs need to be safely integrated into our air space. The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, needs to upgrade its flight management systems. Their decades-old technology cannot manage emerging technologies like UAVs. It will take a long-term investment from Congress for the FAA to do this.

As part of FAA’s NextGen modernization initiative, Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) will allow UAVs to integrate with existing air traffic control systems.

The FAA is still only at the research and testing stage with UTM. Until it is implemented, the broader adoption of UAVs will be limited.

Despite the importance of the task ahead, there has not been a commitment by Congress to fund the improvements needed to modernize the FAA’s aging computer and flight control systems. The Government Accountability Office cited uncertainties about future funding as a major challenge that has affected the FAA’s ability to roll out new technology. This year, instead of increasing the FAA’s budget, $549 million was cut.

Delays at the FAA have consequences for farmers and many small businesses. Because UAVs are affordable, they allow smaller companies to have some of the same capabilities as larger operations.

We are looking at a future where we will need to grow more food to feed a rising global population. UAVs are an important tool that will make farms more productive, and more cost-effective. The agriculture industry is counting on our nation’s leaders to make a firm investment into the FAA so it can carry out its mission.

Making needed investments now will pay dividends many times over in the future and will have the added benefit of affirming the United States as the center of aviation innovation. Predictable regulations, modern safety systems, and smarter technology will give entrepreneurs and engineers the foundation to do what they do best: innovate.

Daniel Royer is president and CEO of Great Valley Oak LLC and was previously vice president of technology at Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.