For decades, science fiction writers have warned the public about a time when humans will become obsolete, replaced entirely by the machines they created. Through the years, automation has increased in many aspects of our lives. If you’ve ever been through the self-checkout line at the grocery store, you know there are quite a few kinks to work out before it’s time to worry about a robot uprising. Nonetheless, new advancements in technology have always been met with initial hesitation before becoming fully embraced.
However, when it comes to the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or as they’re more commonly known, drones, it seems that Americans are eager to see the benefits of this new technology. Late last year, in response to the growing popularity of drones, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced new regulations requiring all drones to be registered by February 19, 2016. A week before the deadline, more than 325,000 people had registered to pilot a drone. To put that number in perspective, there are only 320,000 piloted aircrafts currently registered with the FAA.
While drones are great for spying on your neighbors or getting a cool aerial shot for a wedding video, technological advancements have made them an important tool for people in both the agriculture and construction industries. Juniper Research recently released a report that predicts the sale of commercial drones will skyrocket 84% this year, with 48% coming from the agriculture industry. In addition to that, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International expects that agriculture will make up 80% of the future market for commercial drones. The reason being, while drones stand to improve how numerous industries operate, it could revolutionize the farming industry.
Traditionally, farming has involved a great deal of leg work, checking each individual plant for weeds, bugs, dry soil and any other signs that the crop might not make it to harvest. Even with such close care, problems like nitrogen deficiency or diminished photosynthesis cannot be identified with the naked eye. Technological innovations have made the job easier. Modern machinery, soil testing, and ground-based sensors for crop monitoring have certainly helped.
Today, the use of drones enables farmers to practice precision agriculture, which uses geospatial data and sensors to micro-target fields for better growth. Remote sensors on drones can scan crops for health problems, monitor hydration and growth rates, and locate diseased areas. With this information, farmers can apply pesticides and fertilizers to specific areas in need, rather than spray the entire field. This method could reduce the need for fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides, which are all known to pollute local waterways. In addition to saving the farmer money by reducing the need for labor, drone use in agriculture has the added benefit of reducing the environmental impact that farming has on the Earth.
A 2009 report from the National Research Council of the National Academies found that construction lags behind other industries, such as manufacturing, in terms of productivity. The report goes on to say that these productivity issues can be attributed to problems with planning, coordination, and communication. As most construction sites are typically large and complex, properly managing them can be difficult. The drone could soon become a contractor’s best friend. Drones can be used to survey locations for proposed structures, monitor job sites to ensure safe practices, and inspect bridges or other structures. Real-time awareness has always been a challenge on construction sites. It can be difficult to know if a piece of equipment is where it needs to be or if workers are on the right project. The use of drones could reduce costly mistakes and empower leaders on construction sites with real-time information. This helps them analyze the progress of a project, leading to greater efficiencies in time and costs. Drones can also be an incredible marketing tool, giving the contractor the ability to show potential clients impressive aerial footage of completed projects.
Currently, drones are being used to monitor the site of the Sacramento Kings’ new stadium in California. Once a day, drones patrol the work site, collecting video footage that is then converted into a three-dimensional picture of the site. The picture is then fed into software, recently developed at the University of Illinois that will compare it to computerized architectural plans and the construction work plan that shows when each element should be finished. After comparing the images, the software can alert site managers to the progress of the project, highlighting parts that may be falling behind schedule.
With all of the advantages that eyes in the skies could give various industries, it is no wonder that drones have become increasingly popular for commercial use. However, America is one of the last countries to hop on the drone bandwagon. Countries across Europe, Asia, and South America have been using drones for Volume 01 | Issue 03 6 commercial purposes for some time. Canada has been allowing drone use in agriculture for years, and Japan alone has an estimated 10,000 drones in use for agricultural purposes.
With such a surge in popularity, countries have had different approaches to maintaining control of their airspace. Japan’s police department has an anti-drone police unit that uses drones to catch other drones operating illegally. The Netherlands enlisted the help of “Guard from Above” to give them a decidedly low-tech approach to a high-tech problem – training birds of prey, like bald eagles, to take down hostile or lost drones.
While that may seem like the most American answer to a problem, the FAA is not turning to bald eagles to monitor the airspace just yet. Instead, they have simply decided to implement a list of rules to which drones must adhere. These include not flying higher than 400 feet from the ground and requiring all drones being used for anything other than recreation to obtain a type and airworthiness certificate, or a grant of exemption issued under Section 333.
In an attempt to help businesses circumvent the red tape, Illinois representatives Rodney Davis and Cheri Bustos recently introduced an amendment that, if passed, would let companies fly drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds for commercial purposes without FAA approval.
“This commonsense amendment will remove bureaucratic red tape and allow for the responsible use of small drones,” said Davis in a statement. “This new classification will spur innovation and help small manufacturers like Horizon Hobby, which specializes in manufacturing drones for agriculture use, expand and create jobs.”
The amendment was attached to the FAA’s budget bill, which also proposes removing the country’s air traffic control system from government oversight to a nonprofit board and creates a committee to oversee a drone air traffic control system. According to Davis, countries like Canada, Mexico and Australia have similar drone exemptions for businesses.
If passed, the amendment could kick-start the transition to a technology that the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems expects will create 70,000 new jobs in the U.S. over the next three years. While nothing is set in stone just yet, lawmakers are hoping to finalize the bill before funding expires on March 31. Regardless of the outcome, in just a few short years, seeing a drone whiz by could be just as commonplace as seeing a flock of birds, though, for the drone’s sake, let’s hope none of those are birds of prey.