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.