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Farmers hope drones new way to get information about their fields

Lead Summary

By Dan Gunderson
Minnesota Public Radio
Hundreds of farmers in the Upper Midwest are collecting data about their fields with drones this year, hoping the information will make their farm operations more productive.
They’re embracing drones, even as Federal Aviation Administration rules regulating their use remain unclear.
“This is going to revolutionize the way farmers do business and the information age is here and it’s here to stay so I really hope guys adapt it and adapt it quickly,” said Kris Poulson, a distributor for Farm Intelligence, a Mankato company that analyzes the data collected by drones.
Poulson is so enthused about the prospects of using unmanned aerial systems to improve agricultural yields that he’s using them on his own farm about 30 miles west of Fargo N.D.
Ross Erickson is using the new piece of farm equipment, which has a three-foot wingspan and two cameras mounted in its belly, to photograph Erickson’s fields.
“Once you get experience with it, it takes about five to ten minutes to do the set up so it’s a pretty simple process,” said Erickson, an agricultural economics major at North Dakota State University.
He then threw the three-pound drone into the air and it started it on a pre-set pattern over the field. From a distance it looks like a hawk floating on a summer updraft.
The flight is entirely automated. The drone receives instructions from a laptop perched on the tailgate of Erickson’s pickup truck as it cruises 400 feet above the field at 30 miles per hour.
But it isn’t a toy. The drone and cameras cost land owner and farmer Poulson about $25,000. But he expects the investment to quickly pay off in improved efficiency.
Under federal regulations, drones cannot be used for commercial use, Federal Aviation Administration officials say.
Poulson, however, thinks his use of the drone is allowed because it’s flying over his property.
As there are no requirements that small drones be registered, no one tracks how many are in use.
But drone use is exploding this year, North Dakota State University Professor John Nowatzki said.
“In North Dakota and Minnesota there are hundreds of farmers’ fields that are being flown in 2014 with unmanned aircraft,” he said. “And they’re being flown in a commercial basis so it’s certainly not under the rules of the FAA.”

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