Farming From The Sky: New Applications For Drones

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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WHSV) -- Drones are a controversial topic that make a lot of people think of spying; however, the devices also have a lot of potential.

Drone technology could change how Virginia farmers do business.

"We see agriculture as a really big growth area for unmanned aircraft," said Dr. Kevin Kochersberger, the director of the Unmanned Systems Laboratory at Virginia Tech.

The Federal Aviation Administration is so interested in using drones that it is sponsoring research at seven locations around the country, one of them is Virginia Tech.

"Our mission is to help with the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, but we also look at other applications of unmanned aircraft say in agriculture and environmental monitoring, emergency response," said Kochersberger.

Kochersberger thinks high value crops could be some of the first adopters of drone technology.

With new research and applications using remote controls, farmers can see their fields like never before.

"One of the main things that was done in our lab by another master's student who just finished his thesis was looking at different tobacco crops as well as corn, kind of just identifying the health of those," said Scott Radford, a Virginia Tech graduate student.

The advantage drones have is that they can give a picture of crop health a farmer's eye simply can't see.

Curt Hartman, the president of Bluestone Vineyard in Rockingham County, thinks drones could be put to use on farms.

"You can look to see if there are sections that have disease, you can look to see what is ripening first. So, you can operate much more effectively without stomping through 200 acres of grapes. You know right away where you need to add water or where you need to spray," said Hartman.

In Blacksburg, it is concerns like these that graduate students Radford are working to address.

"Disaster situations is what I want to use it for," said Radford.

Radford and fellow Tech students are exploring many applications for drones.

One of those is helicopter drone that carries a robot to a site, lets the robot down to take soil samples and flies back.

The Japanese government inquired about using it after the Fukushima reactor melt down to check radioactivity in the soil.

Drones were also used recently after a sinkhole opened in National Corvette Museum.

They were used to assess the safety of the building.

Even with the benefits of drones, researchers are concerned about privacy.

"What we would like to do was focus on the applications of unmanned aircraft that does not infringe on privacy issues. So, agriculture, where you have cooperative control on the ground there are areas where we see a very good opportunity for unmanned aircraft," said Kochersberger.

The negative aspects of drones could over shadow the research into the benefits, but whether you love them or hate them, you could see more images from above Virginia farms.

Virginia Tech's research for the FAA will not be done for awhile; however, in the meantime, if you want to learn more about drones and farming the Virginia Cooperative Extension is holding two informational meeting.

The first will take place on February 28 in New Market and and then March 7 in Weyers Cave and you must register in advance.