UAVs: Idiot-Proof Or Idiot Proof

For what seems like the umpteenth year in a row, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) dominated much of the conversation at this summer’s agricultural industry trade shows. At virtually every event being held the past few months, exhibitors were alternately flying UAVs near their booths, showing videos extolling the virtues of these products for agriculture, or both. In addition, UAVs once again figured prominently in PrecisionAg magazine’s annual ranking of the Top 5 Precision Ag Technologies.

And the level of excitement to see among those that make their living in agriculture is something to behold. For those individuals that fall within the Generation X and Millennials age groups, UAVs seem another in a long line of technological steps agriculture needs to take to remain on path to its stated goal of feeding a world population of more than nine billion souls by the middle of this century. For those in the Baby Boom generation and those born before the end of World War II, UAVs are another tool that can improve upon and speed up the time-tested techniques for helping grower-customers find out what conditions are in their fields. What’s more, folks of all ages seem to really like the fact that UAVs are simple to operate. In other words, they are seen as “idiot-proof,” kind of like automatic steering in farm equipment.

“UAVs promise to be something of a revolution for precision agriculture,” said Carl Bartenhagen, national accounts manager for FarmChem at an early autumn association meeting. “I love the fact that someone operating one could scout an entire field from the air in a matter of minutes and determine such variables as where crop diseases might be present and what soil conditions are like. In fact, I bet there are some ways UAVs could be used in agriculture that haven’t even been thought of just yet. But some bright young kid is going to figure it out pretty quickly I’m sure.”

But I foresee one very big problem with UAVs and their use in agriculture — they are too popular with some of the wrong kinds of users. For the past few years, unlicensed “hobby” UAV operators have been flying these technological marvels into the wrong places. For some months now, commercial airline pilots flying into some of the nation’s busiest and largest airports on the East Coast have reported near misses with UAVs straying into their flight paths. Out on the West Coast, firefighters battling some of the region’s worst wildfires with airplanes and helicopters were forced to ground their efforts when one UAV with a camera appeared on the scene. One hobby UAV operator — an engineering student in college — decided to film his model sporting a loaded firearm (which was shown shooting off a few rounds). He ended up being investigated by several branches of the federal government to see if using a UAV in this manner violated any laws.

In my book, these folks would all fall under the heading of “idiot proof” when it comes to UAV use. Unfor­tunate­ly, it will only take one reckless UAV operator ramming their vehicle into a commercial plane, residence or crowded sports arena (causing injuries) to ruin the potential this technology can bring to many businesses for everyone.

Some of my colleagues have argued with me that a few bad apples operating UAVs won’t spoil the entire marketplace. But I’m not so sure. One of the most frequent set of videos I run across these days shows animals attacking (and destroying) UAVs. Each of these has thousands of views on Websites such as YouTube.

This proves to me that although new technology always holds promise, some people just can’t wait for it to fail miserably — and gleefully document this failure along the way.

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