The agriculture industry may soon account for roughly half of all drone flights in the United States.
By Claire Everett and Robert Holly/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
DECATUR — Rather than a field of dreams, it looks like the future of farms is a field of drones.
Experts predict that the agriculture industry may soon account for roughly half of all drone flights in the United States.
As part of that trend, farmers from across the country gathered in central Illinois this week for the Precision Aerial Ag Show, a showcase of unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones.
Stu Ellis, the event's organizer, said people from more than 30 states and at least six countries came to the two-day show in Decatur.
Drone use in farming is becoming standard as farmers seek more efficient ways to survey their fields and evaluate plant health.
"Just a tick under half of all U.S. flights over the next 10 years are going to involve our industry, period," said Chad Colby, an unmanned aerial systems expert who runs the website AgTechTalk.com. "We're the big player."
An audit released last month  by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General Office reported that there will be about 7,500 active unmanned aircraft systems flying throughout U.S. skies within the next five years.
Randy Aberle grows corn, soybean and wheat in Gibson City. Aberle said he has long been flying drones above his farming operation for a variety of tasks.
"I use drones to check health of the crop," Aberle said. "Looking for disease issues that might be showing up, pest issues that might be showing up."
Judi Graff, who farms corn, beans, wheat and cattle in Middletown, also uses drones.
Graff said drones are worth the investment — they can cost anywhere from about $300 to more than $150,000 — because the aircrafts reassure farmers they are keeping up with what is going in their fields through the information they collect.
"From what I see from farmers, it's about the peace of mind," Graff said. "You've got to know what's out there. You want to know what's on the other side of that field."
Despite the growing enthusiasm demonstrated by the farmers and drone hobbyists in attendance, drone advocates familiar with Federal Aviation Administration rules argue that regulation is currently murky and often restrictive.
In general, hobbyists using drones for strictly domestic, non-commercial purposes are allowed to pilot them below 400 feet.
Commercial use of drones, on the other hand, is prohibited without direct authorization from the aviation administration at any altitude. Additionally, even if commercial users are cleared to fly drones, operators must be able to see them at all times.
Those commercial rules are contradictory, according to Brendan Shulman, head of Unmanned Aircraft Systems law group, a branch of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, which has offices in New York, California and Paris.
Shulman said there should not be any difference between putting up a windmill or flagpole on private property and flying a drone in the same airspace.
"What is the difference between putting up that flagpole with a camera on it, or a crane, versus using something that uses propellers?" Shulman said. "You're basically using the same airspace, but a different kind of device to get there."
Furthermore, about half of all U.S. states — including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota — have some form of a privacy law that restricts drone use, an ACLU analysis found.
Illinois specifically has a privacy-protection law that guards against drone surveillance.
New rules, restrictions
Recent policy efforts suggest that new federal guidelines may further restrict drone use specifically related to agriculture, as well.
Last month, the aviation administration released new policies in its "Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft ." The new policy on model aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles stated that individuals can freely view crops "for personal enjoyment," but cannot use the devices to determine "whether crops need to be watered."
The policy is under a period of public comment until July 25.
"No one's here to try to break any rules or laws, or break the FAA's regulations," said Steven Petrotto, brand manager for Horizon Precision Systems, an offshoot of Champaign-based Horizon Hobby. "But, the industry is strong and we're definitely lobbying to get these sorts of systems out there."
Stephen Morris, an authority on drone design and president of the California-based MLB Company, echoed similar ideas in Decatur.
Morris said he once viewed the agriculture industry as a promising market. Now, he said the restrictive policies have led him to focus on other markets.
"I've always wanted to be able to work commercially in this market," said Morris, who now sells his aircraft to government buyers and in markets abroad. "We're just looking forward to a future where we can do that in the U.S."
During the show, Morris showcased his company's Super Bat UAV. At a cost of $150,000, this high-end drone model can fly thousands of feet in the air and survey up to 55,000 acres in a single day.
"We see agriculture as a big potential market," Morris said. "Unfortunately, we think it's going to be other countries that develop this first because of severe regulations in the United States."
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit newsroom devoted to educating the public about crucial issues in the Midwest with a special focus on agribusiness and related topics such as government programs, environment and energy. Read more at http://www.investigatemidwest.org .