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FAA Exemption Expands Drone Use in Ag

Fox Business’ Michael Ruiz reported Sunday that “a new exemption for drone piloting from the Federal Aviation Administration has cleared the airways for ‘drone-swarm’ agriculture, a method of seeding and spraying crops at a fraction of the traditional cost.”

“Hylio, a Texas-based drone manufacturer, successfully applied for an exemption from the FAA to allow fleets of drones weighing 55 pounds or more to fly together,” Ruiz reported. “It’s the first exception of its kind for machines that carry what the company calls a ‘meaningful payload’ and makes the process competitive with traditional tractors and seeding rigs.”

AgWeb’s Matthew J. Grassi reported in mid-March that “by swarming three of Hylio’s AG-230 spray drones (which can also apply dry dispersible products and cover crop seeds), for example, a skilled operator can now cover 150 acres per hour, which (Hylio CEO Arthur) Erickson says is comparable to a large pull-behind sprayer in some cases.”

Product page of the Hylio AG-272 drone. Courtesy of Hylio.
Drones Cheaper Than Traditional Equipment

One of the primary draws for producers to drone seeding or crop spraying is that the cost for the drones is significantly cheaper than the traditional equipment that would be used to do those jobs.

Ruiz reported that “drones begin at around $50,000 per unit, according to Hylio. A conventional tractor can cost more than $300,000, with some high-end models going for over $700,000.”

Andy Kreikemeier, a Nebraska farmer who spoke to Ruiz for his article, “said he paid about $80,000 each for his fully-loaded drones from Hylio.”

Technology Could Help Labor Shortage

CBS News’ Dave Malkoff, Amy Corral, Ryan Beard, Scott Pham and John Kelly reported in mid-March that “developers of these high-tech tools said their inventions could help ease the decadeslong labor shortage that’s been impacting the U.S. agricultural industry. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of hired farm laborers declined by more than 50%, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hiring has continued to be a challenge for farm owners into the 2020s.”

“Some large-scale farms and advocacy groups have introduced training programs to help farm workers develop the skills to adapt to the new technology and take on new roles as drone operators or programmers,” CBS News reported. “‘I think that we can use machinery and still take care of our people,’ said Adrián Miramontes, a Mexican immigrant and military veteran who now manages a large farming operation. ‘They’re willing to learn and they’re willing to do better for themselves and their families.'”

But there are also concerns about the technology pushing farm workers out of jobs, according to the CBS News article, which said that “the U.S. Department of Labor is also monitoring the issue. A spokesperson told CBS News that next month the department will send President Biden a list of recommendations for an aid program that could help farm workers who have been displaced by AI. Any new aid package would require congressional approval.”

What’s the Future for Drones in Ag?

Ruiz reported that Erickson said Hylio machines have been “used to drop tree seeds in areas scorched by wildfires, and aquatic farmers have used them to seed their water with clams,” in addition “to spraying and seeding farmland.”

And while the FAA exemption remains fairly limited for now, Erickson said he believes it’s just a start for drones in agriculture.

“Erickson sees the ceiling for capacity coming in around the 1,000-pounds/40-60 gallon per drone mark, eventually,” Grassi reported. “’Then you’re going to get multiples deployed in a field instead of just one giant, 200-gallon drone,’ (Erickson) says. ‘I think that’s more practical for manufacturers and the buyers and users themselves.’”

Ryan Hanrahan is the farm policy news editor and social media director for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked in local news, primarily as an agriculture journalist in the American West. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri (B.S. Science & Agricultural Journalism).

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