Drones Taking Larger Role In North Dakota, Minnesota Ag Industries

Story by Mikkel Pates

FARGO, N.D. — The question is no longer when, it’s how, the experts say.

Adoption of drones for precision agriculture applications has sky-is-the-limit potential, even as the learning curves and economics bring it back to earth.

Matt Henry, mission manager for the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, a speaker at the International Sugarbeet Institute in Fargo on March 23, said the Federal Aviation Administration in December issued rules for small aircraft.

“There’s a lot of interest,” Henry said. “People are saying, ‘We have these rules, we can fly, how do I do it?'”

The use of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, has gotten bigger and bigger for agricultural producers looking to be early adopters in drone-assisted precision agriculture.

The test site, operated by the University of North Dakota, started out specific to the state but in 2014 and 2015 was expanded to the entire continental U.S. They field questions constantly, relating to individual markets, including agriculture. With new FAA rules, most questions can be answered by going to faa.gov and other online research, Henry said. Farmers can peruse through the 107 rules online, and there are many local flight schools and operators in the region who will get them flying or do the flying for them.

Henry said the most limiting factor for farmers is just “educating themselves” and passing the test that allows them to fly drones.

“You have to be a licensed unmanned pilot to do these things commercially, so for some it may be easier to find an operator locally that can fly it for them whenever they want to,” he said.

There is also the cost of keeping a drone maintained and for the operator to stay current and proficient.

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