Aerial drones, a technology perhaps best known for helping hunt terrorists on the other side of the globe, may soon begin helping U.S. farmers monitor what's happening in their fields.
In Georgia, a group of state and federal officials — along with members of industry and academia — has been working since 2009 to develop a drone that can save a farmer's time and resources during the growing season.
The public got its first glimpse of the group's drone at a flight demonstration last month at a research farm in Moultrie, Georgia.
By deploying a UAV with a multi-spectral camera to survey crops, farmers could spot water and nutrition issues, insect infestations and fungal infections.
"The UAV saves a tremendous amount of time," said Eric Corban, founder and chief technology officer for Guided Systems Technologies Inc., a Stockbridge, Georgia, company that helped develop the software. "Traditionally you would walk the field, and you would only get a small portion of the field sample. The UAV can do it in a fraction of that time and cover the entire field."
Although the technology is only in the testing phase, commercial use could begin once the Federal Aviation Administration issues rules.
"We're working very close with the FAA," said Steve Justice, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace. "They have direction from the Congress to issue rules for the use of unmanned aircraft systems by the fall of 2015."
Once those rules are in place, the Georgia group believes its partnership will be at the forefront of the U.S. commercial market.
"I think Georgia has a very unique aspect here," said Chad Dennis, the program's director for the Georgia Centers of Innovation. "We're probably the first state to put all the pieces of the puzzle together."
Agriculture has had a rich history of technology advances but one industry veteran thinks the use of farm drones may top the list. Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission, has been with the agency for nearly three decades.
"I've seen us go from two-row planting equipment and harvesting, and everything, to really big equipment," Koehler said. "I've seen a lot that's gone on. I've seen yields go up. But in that 28 years, I don't think I've seen what I'll see in the next eight years."