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SPECIAL REPORT: Drones Eye Ag Market

WATERLOO, IA (CBS2/FOX28) Drones, or unmanned aircraft, are probably best known for their military work. Theyve been used by the United States in the Middle East for both intelligence gathering and to carry out attacks. So far back in the states, unmanned aircraft havent been allowed, but that that hasnt stopped people all over the U.S. from finding new uses for them. When the aircraft are eventually standardized, many expect them to play a huge role in the Midwestern economy.

Unmanned aircraft collect information in the form of video or pictures, cover a large amount of psace and do it much faster than any person in any vehicle could on the ground.

That means that farmers all over the United States and in Iowa want to get their hands on what had been science fiction and hadnt been seen domestically, until now.

For most farming technology, whether its genetic engineering in seeds or wind and solar energy, the skys the limit. The same is true when figuring out ways to use unmanned vehicles.

"What we've done so far is we've been doing some flying to record as much information as we can to learn what we can learn from it, said the President and Owner of Labre Crop Consulting Brent Johnson.

Johnson is a famer but also consults for other producers, helping them find ways to best grow their crops. He started using his drone to fly over his clients fields, taking pictures of their land and whats on it. Hes doing it all for free in the name of figuring out exactly whats possible with this technology.

"We started working with producers' information and their data and trying to help them understand the information that they've recorded and how to make better decisions out of that information, said Johnson.

Right now, that work is done with airplanes, flown by a pilot. But thats so expensive that farmers can only afford to do it once or twice a growing season, if at all.

"Unmanned aerial vehicles have potential in my operation during the growing season I think during the growing season in that we can run them more often than we can a manned vehicle plus we hope to be able to do it more economically, said Clarion Farmer Gary Woodley.

Gary is the perfect example of someone Brent might help.

"We can locate existing tile lines that may not be working, and just walking the fields and driving the fields, you can't see that easily, said Woodley.

"There's software once you're done, there's stitching software to stitch all the individual pictures together into one mosaic image of the whole area, said Johnson.

A normal consult would start with Brent assembling his drone, mapping out a flight path on his computer, which includes safe landing zones and barriers on the flight path.

After shaking the drone, the motor starts and hes ready to fly, which, ironically is where Michael Toscano from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says Brent hits his legal limits.

"There is no legal way to fly unless he has a certificate of authorization from the FAA, and they only give those out to do research at this point in time, said Toscano.

Toscano says the Federal Aviation Administration is just doing its job by not officially allowing flights like the ones that Brent performs. He says they regulate everything that takes to the sky, making sure nothing falls out of it. But by being slow to come up with a set of guidelines for flying drones, the FAA is making it harder for people like Brent to experiment and discouraging others from joining the conversation.

"This is the rub of contention right now is that there's an industry waiting to be formed that the FAA is the entity that preventing it from happening but you got to remember the FAA is responsible for safety, said Toscano.

Brent compares the current Unmanned Aircraft industry to the Oklahoma Land Grab in 1889, where settlers lined up on the edge of what was then just a territory and waited for the government to tell them they could settle whatever land they could hold on to.

"We're all ready to go, we want a piece of that land but the government hasn't told us that we can go yet so we're all lining up on that line and we're all waiting for the FAA and then once they say 'go' we're all going to go and see how much of that market we can capture, said Johnson.

On the day that Brent flew his unmanned vehicle for us, the winds were at roughly 30 miles per hour, which is just about the drones limit. Shortly after takeoff, the drone realized that it couldnt safely complete its job and automatically started a sequence to safely land in a predetermined landing zone. It was successful in doing that, showing the kind of safety features that already exist, even before the FAAs been able to officially regulate them.

People in the industry say they expect the FAA to come out with a set of guidelines for flying and certification at some point in the next year.

Unmanned vehicle use also raises huge questions about individual privacy. Toscano says breaking the law, whether 4th Amendment laws or peeping Tom laws, is still breaking the law, whether its done with an UAV or a pair of binoculars.
 
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