Opinion

Agricultural Drones Depend on Safe Air Space

Drone technology is transforming industries across America, and one industry in particular that has the potential to reap its benefits is agriculture.

It is estimated that the market for drone-powered solutions in agriculture measured $32.4 billion in 2016, and it is steadily climbing from there. America’s farmers are finding new uses for this technology, especially as it becomes cheaper and more accessible to operations of all types and sizes.

Drone technology can be used during every phase of agriculture and natural resource management. Farmers, foresters, ranchers and other rural professionals can use drones to improve productivity, reduce costs, increase safety, and decrease their carbon footprint. Farmers can use drones to monitor plant health, scout for pests, track time irrigation and estimate harvest yields. Ranchers can check fences and livestock with drones. Foresters can use drones to check property boundaries and timber health.

Drones also increase safety. They can be used to check dangerous roads or property boundaries. They can also decrease off road travel from vehicles, thereby improving habitat for wildlife while also reducing the rural carbon footprint and saving money on fuel and vehicle maintenance. Drones can also be used to check livestock, wildlife, timber, crops, and habitat after disasters like floods and blizzards.

The presence of drones in agriculture will only continue to increase as young farmers transitioning into ownership of family operations embrace the technology. The agricultural drone market is anticipated to grow more than 38 percent between 2017 and 2025. With over 2 million family farms in America, that percentage means there will be a whole lot more drones in our skies soon enough.

Industries outside of agriculture are also benefiting from drone technology. The first package ever delivered by drone landed recently by a FedEx-Google partnership. UPS, who has been granted drone certification by the Federal Aviation Administration, will soon follow. Not only are drones transforming businesses, local governments and more, but other revolutionizing airspace technologies, such as Uber air taxis, are just around the corner.

With these rapidly moving technologies, it’s due time we have a robust conversation about our current airspace capabilities. The concept of drones and air taxis was inconceivable until recently, and a case can be made that we are not ready for these changes yet, considering a great deal of our air traffic control systems are based around 1970’s radar technology.

The FAA is currently working to modernize our air traffic control system to best handle the influx of new vehicles in the air. An overhaul this major and this important will not be cheap, and it will require a long-term and sustainable investment from Congress to the FAA. With that in mind, it does not make sense that the FAA recently received a $549 million cut in its budget.

Though the FAA recently announced their NextGen initiative, it is moving too slow. We are in the 21st century. Technology is surpassing expectations, and there is no way it is slowing down any time soon. The frightening reality is that we simply cannot afford to invest billions of dollars into new systems that are not able to evolve at the same speed of technological growth.

As someone who has spent their career in agriculture, and have seen countless new technologies emerge, drones and their capabilities are here to stay. However, in order for this to be a success, the FAA is going to be responsible for onboarding millions of new drones, and they will absolutely need the funding and technology to monitor them.

We cannot allow an issue as important and widespread as the modernization of air traffic control to fall down on Washington, D.C.’s priority list. Congress needs to support farmers, as well as other emerging markets, in their use of new drone technologies. We respectfully ask our elected officials to fully fund the NextGen efforts – it is the only way we can ensure that this technology is integrated across America and our skies remain safe.

Jack Alexander is president of the Rural & Agriculture Council of America — a consortium of mayors, county commissioners, ranchers, farmers, producers, Main Street business owners, and leaders in rural America — and the founder of Synergy Resource Solutions, with 33+ years’ experience in vegetation monitoring, data analysis, range management practices and principles and erosion control.

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