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Farmers eager for drones, but most can’t fly them legally

Small, relatively inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles could replace humans in a variety of ways around farms and ranches, transmitting detailed information about crops, directing farmers to problem spots and cutting down on the amount of water and chemicals used.

Mike Geske wants a drone. Watching a flying demonstration, the Missouri farmer envisions using an unmanned aerial vehicle to monitor the irrigation pipes on his farm — a job he now pays three men to do. “The savings on labor and fuel would just be phenomenal,” Geske says, watching as a small white drone hovers over a nearby corn field and transmits detailed pictures of the growing stalks to an iPad. Many area Farmers are eager for the technology.

The small, relatively inexpensive vehicles could replace humans in a variety of ways around farms: transmitting detailed information about crops to combines and sprayers, directing them very precisely to problem spots and cutting down on the amount of water and chemicals that a farmer needs to use in those areas.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, says agriculture could account for 80 percent of all commercial drone use. 3-D images of plants, thermal readings of crops or animals or other observations that a drone could make while in the air. Information that in the past took days to collect — or could not have been collected at all — can be gathered now in minutes or hours and, in some cases, integrated with separate data collected from other high-tech farm machinery.

Still, most farmers cannot legally fly the vehicles yet.

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The FAA is working on rules that would allow the drones to be used regularly for business while maintaining certain safety and privacy standards. An FAA proposal this year would allow flight of the vehicles as long as they weigh less than 55 pounds, stay within the operator’s sight and fly during the daytime, among other restrictions. Operators would have to pass an FAA test of aeronautical knowledge and a Transportation Security Administration background check.

   
           
           
           
       
       
       
             
   
   
         
   
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