Perspective: Could Amazon’s Folly Kill UAVs For Ag?

It’s something I’ve been saying for at least the past year, starting about the time we were in the early planning stages of the InfoAg Conference that took place in July of this year. That was December 2012, and one of the big topics that almost everyone wanted us to cover was unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or the more popular and much less flattering term, drones.

The term “drone” has become synonymous with military nastiness such as bombs, terrorism, and invasion of privacy, and any association it has with agriculture’s vision for UAV use is unfortunate and not constructive to the discussion, but that’s a discussion for another day.

In any event, about that same time we were hearing about Domino’s Pizza and rumors of its desire to deliver its pies via drones to consumers. This set me off on an angry tirade, ending with me making the prediction, “you just know that some overzealous company is going to take UAV technology just a little too far, and that will be it. With no ability to adequately regulate UAV use, the government will shut the door on it entirely.”

So six months after the InfoAg Conference, we get Amazon’s Jeff Bezos on the television news show 60 Minutes talking about delivering packages via a fleet of drones. Which led me to revisit my tirade: someone, or some business, is going to screw this UAV thing up for all of us.

I understand that on its face it’s a brilliant notion. Fewer packages in trucks mean fewer trucks on the road and less pollution. Consumers get packages faster. As fast business today runs and as overworked and harried as we are now, we could take things up yet another notch, right?

Anyway, it took about 30 seconds for the reaction to Amazon’s plan to come to a boil on every media outlet across every platform. Could drones collect georeferenced data linked to individual consumers on its flights across neighborhoods en route to delivering packages? Sure it could. Could an octocopter with a 20 pound payload fall from the sky on Johnny’s head at the playground? Absolutely. Could a terrorist paint a smiley face on a drone with an unhappy payload of something deadly or explosive? You could see it happening. Would “skeet shooting” supplant baseball as America’s favorite pastime? Possibly.

I’m here at the Ag Retailers Association Conference this week, and a gentleman from the FBI anti-terrorism inspection team got into a discussion about Amazon’s plan. His one sentence response: “They’re going to put the kibosh on this pretty quick.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is currently working through the process of creating regulations on UAVs, a process that is set to conclude with a clear set of rules by 2015 at very soonest. And my biggest fear in this process is that they will throw the baby out with the bathwater … which to me is wholly unnecessary.

In agriculture, there are some very useful and valuable applications that UAVs can perform, and we’re actually pretty darned advanced on this front. In Canada, where they’ve figured some things out when it comes to commercial UAV use, it’s working pretty well. We can do it here, too.

Let’s hope cooler heads prevail, and we can keep making progress on UAV use in agriculture. Well-intentioned but overreaching plans that endanger the productive use of UAVs could kill a technology with great promise for improved field scouting and more accurate and timely pest control, among many other potential benefits.

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6 comments on “Perspective: Could Amazon’s Folly Kill UAVs For Ag?

  1. While I agree with most everything that Paul mentions in his well written article, I suspect that most people realize that Amazon was simply creating a media blitz to build brand awareness just prior to the holiday buying frenzy.

    Agricultural robotic aircraft manufactures like AgEagle based in Neodesha, KS is making headway to mainstream the use of UAS/UAV’s in agricultural. This is being done by first creating a UAS that is totally focused on agriculture, safe, robust and simple to operate. AgEagle is not interested in delivering pizza’s, taco’s, chasing endangered animals or even search and rescue. If the application of an AgEagle is not farm or agricultural related, the company is not interested in pursing it.

    The agricultural industry is eager to adapt robotic aircraft because they understand the significant benefits of NDVI aerial images and prescription maps through reduced input costs and increased yields.

    As stated in many previous blogs and post, the use of robotic aircraft in agriculture is the simplest, safest use of the technology and represents a high degree of return.

    The use of robotic aircraft (UAS / UAV / drones) in agriculture will become mainstream this summer as many users begin realizing the benefits of AgEagle systems on their farms this coming spring. A backlog of orders are being manufactured this winter to fill the pent-up demand by early adaptors. So, this spring there will be many farmers flying robotic aircraft over their own land.

    The daily use of robotic aircraft by farmers and demonstrating their safety will go a long way to win the publics acceptance of UAS/UAV’s and soon the commercial applications.

    The public relations stunt created by Jeff Bezos may actually help agriculture by demonstrating a practical use of UAS/UAV’s to the public rather than their perception of their use in the military.

  2. I think there’s room for coexistence here with what Amazon’s doing and for ag usage as well; they’re two quite different uses of the technology. Passenger automobiles aren’t subject to the same set of rules and regulations as 18 wheelers just because they use the same road. The collision avoidance technolgy the FAA wants for urban areas is going to be necessary for Amazon’s implementation (and puts them out at least 5 years to go-live). For a grower operating on thier own land within a line-of-sight, this is a non-issue.

  3. Flying a UAV over public property, or other people’s personal property sounds like a very different legal situation than flying it within the confines a one’s own land.

  4. I agree that there COULD be room for both, if public and media focus on “delivery drones” doesn’t lead to outrage/panic about privacy and safety issues. When that happens, the temptation is to either kick the can down the road until companies give up, or simply apply the sledgehammer and kill it altogether. It makes me think about the early trial balloons floated about RFID technology, and how quickly its use got shoved under the table.

    If the FAA puts in the effort it can sort it out and make reasonable rules. Dare I say that agricultural uses could get fast tracked while the ‘urban’ plan gets sorted out?

  5. I greatly appreciate Paul’s article. Commercial UAV use is at the forefront of many businesses and industries, especially agriculture. I do believe that cooler heads will prevail, but agriculture needs to do its part by promoting the use, creating proactive resolutions for organizations, and contacting our federal elected officials.

    My thoughts are that the Amazon story will not hurt UAV commercialization and here is why. Agriculture will be the first industry to use it and more than likely forestry will be there as well. What the Amazon story did do is bring to the front other uses of UAVs besides military.

    What is happening in the general population is a fear created by the media using the term drone, just like they continually use assault rifle and point blank range for firearms. Their job is to sell papers and they do that through sensational headlines. Those headlines along with all of the stories about military use has created a vision of killing.

    At this point in time there are many different things happening in the world of UAVs and most of it is positive. The FAA will be announcing the winners of the six UAV Centers of Excellence by the end of the month. There were 25 states that had applications accepted so there is a 25% chance of winning. A UAV MegaMillions so to speak.

    And yes it will be MegaMillions. The winning states will be able to not only start building UAVs, but it will bring software writers and companies building payloads to the state as well. The jobs created will give these states an economic boost, with many looking at industries outside of agriculture.

    While I do agree we need to proceed cautiously and respectfully in agriculture there will always be those that have visions in their industry as well. However, vision and reality do clash sometimes and with today’s current technology, Jeff Bezos’ vision of UAV delivering packages is not realistic.

    Again, things are moving very fast in the world of UAVs and there area few things that I am privy of that would help clear things up a bit. In the mean time, we need people like Paul Schrimpf and publications like PrecisionAg getting the word out and helping to nudge UAVs into a positive direction. Thanks Paul for an article that really made me think about the UAV industry.

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