Agriculture drones to set the tone for surveillance

Most folks have heard about the use of drones for military purposes, but there is a much better future

Most folks have heard about the use of drones for military purposes, but there is a much better future for these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), as they are officially called, in the world of agriculture.

A number of universities and research agencies are already busily investigating their use mainly for crop surveillance of diseases and other production issues. The potential is certainly clear, the research is now trying to find what system and equipment will work best at the least cost.

However, the real push is coming from private UAV developers who see new marketing potential in agriculture. A whole swarm of companies in the U.S., Canada and Australia are already well along with UAV concepts and prototypes. An additional industry in creating unique plant sensors and cameras will probably be created to take advantage of drone technology.

Aerial crop surveillance isn’t new, satellites and aircraft have done it on a limited scale for years. But the results were not always detailed or timely and cost was a limiting factor.

However, the advancement in drone technology has changed all that. Military drones now seem to be able read stop signs at 1,000 feet, do it for hours on end with precise GPS measurements and broadcast the results to your cell phone instantly. One can envisage infrared technology that will identify what types of insects and how many are infesting a crop.

All of that future surveillance will see further development in the use of attack drones spraying crops against disease and pests and pinpointing the exact location of the outbreak. That could see considerable saving in the use of herbicides and pesticides in blanket spraying as is now done by ground equipment and large spray aircraft.

Another area that might see some potential is in the use of drones in locating and counting livestock on large range operation. Such more cumbersome technology has been used for years with the use of radio collars in wildlife studies. It can surely be used in the near future with more advanced ultra high frequency ear tags.

Drones could fly over an area at 100 feet and scanners would pick up the tagged cattle. No more riding the range looking for stray or sick cattle. It’s not that farfetched, Wal-Mart and other retailers are developing tiny electronic tags that can be inserted onto every item they sell.

Those items can be scanned all at once in a grocery cart and a bill made up instantly. That would see most cashiers lose their jobs. I expect the present animal ID tags will be replaced with even more advanced technology within the next five years if the retailers move forward with their technology.

Of course there is a further extrapolation of this type of technology. Are we that far away from having an ID chip inserted into humans that can be picked up by drone surveillance.

That would sure make law enforcement a much more interesting exercise. Missing persons would certainly be reduced. If you think that is unlikely, think again, how many parents would not want an ID chip inserted in their kids in case the child is lost or kidnapped. But that opens a whole new can of worms and it’s already a big concern in the U.S.

The Federal Aviation Authority in the US is already in the midst of developing a policy on how to regulate the private use of advanced UAVs. At present only hobby level model aircraft can be used by private citizens without a licence. The concern has to do with privacy.

Authorities are worried that more advanced low cost drones can be used by citizens to spy on other citizens for nefarious or titillating purposes. It gets worse, government agencies could expand their surveillance of the behaviour of citizens. Ponder this, what if diabolical green or animal rights activist groups wanted to spy on a farming operation to gather incriminating evidence. They could do this if they were allowed to use advanced drones.

It would seem that the future of drones for use in agriculture would be a great leap forward and make crop production even more efficient and I expect that will come.

The problem for authorities and society is to find a way to use UAVs for its positive potential and not allow it to be abused. I expect that those concerns are being struggled with as we speak.

— Ahead of the Heard