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Backers say drones will prove useful for farmers

    FILE - This March 12, 2014 file photo shows a drone landing after flying over the scene of an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings in East Harlem in New York. Brian Wilson, the owner, says he uses the aerial drone to document buildings, weddings and news events. The Federal Aviation Administration bars commercial use of drones no matter how seemingly benign. Officials say rules to address the special safety challenges associated with unmanned aircraft need to be in place before they can share the sky with manned aircraft and final regulations could be years away. But tempting technology and an eager marketplace are outrunning the aviation agency's best intentions.

DES MOINES, Iowa >> Interest is growing in using unmanned drones to help monitor millions of acres of crops.

Drones with infrared cameras and other sensors can help identify insect problems and watering issues early. They can also help assess crop yields and locate missing cattle.

The Des Moines Register reports that supporters believe using drones on farms makes sense because the operations are generally large and in rural areas.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that 80 percent of the commercial use of drones will eventually be in agriculture.

Former Kansas State University professor Kevin Price said drones will let farmers monitor their crops in ways they never have, and he expects nearly every farm to start using the technology in the next decade.

"It is endless right now, the applications in agriculture," said Price, who left the university this month to join RoboFlight, a Denver-based company that sells drones and analyzes the data collected on corn, soybean and other field crops.

Farmer Brent Johnson spent $30,000 on a drone last year to study how the topography of his 900-acre central Iowa farm affects yields.

He said using the drone helps him decide whether to replant an area or avoid it in the future.

"I’m always looking for an advantage, looking for how I can do things better," Johnson said.

Drones can also help farmers determine how much pesticide, herbicide or fertilizer to apply to specific areas of their fields.

Drones range in cost from $2,000 for a basic model to roughly $160,000 for a military-style device.

Some farmers may try to operate their own drone, like Johnson has done, but most are likely to hire companies with the expertise to operate the devices.

Privacy and safety concerns have been raised about the idea of businesses using drones. But agricultural use of the devices could be more likely to gain acceptance.

Gilbert Landolt has protested the way the U.S. military uses drones as part of the Des Moines chapter of Veterans for Peace, but he’s not opposed to agricultural use as long as it’s regulated properly.

"There are good uses for drones, I’m not saying there’s not, but we need to get a handle on it," Landolt said. "If they had some type of control over it and could do it in a way on a farm that makes sense, I don’t have an issue with that."

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