Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Inspecting crops with drones? It will happen

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Spoiler alert: This column contains important information many farmers will find seriously disappointing.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are without a doubt the hottest new technology to hit the farm belt, and it's easy to see why.

Known in military jargon as drones, these remote-controlled gadgets allow farmers to observe what's going on in their fields without ever getting their boots muddy or fighting their way through dense crops and mosquitoes.

Like many military inventions that have crossed over into civilian use, UAVs are becoming more affordable as their commercial applications grow. It's now possible to obtain a unit powered by four rotors with a camera, assorted mounts and a controller for under $3,000.

Having a bird's-eye view allows a farmer to monitor crop growth and identify trouble spots, such as patches where insects are feeding or disease is taking hold. They can see problems caused by spray drift or fertilizer misses and monitor how drainage systems are working. The unit can hover a few metres off the ground and can even help with plant counts.

They are also a good fit with the growing awareness over field bio-security. Just as livestock operators no longer allow people to come in and out of their barns because of disease concerns, yield-crippling crop diseases such as clubroot and blight can also be carried on people's clothing and boots. Extension workers now advise farmers to require anyone entering their fields to don sanitary foot covers. Better yet, the less traipsing through the crop the better.

Farmers are well-documented techno-geeks who are quick to embrace anything that makes growing crops faster, easier or smarter. It's partly because they face continuous pressure to produce more with less, but in this case, it's also because there is a certain fun factor to flying one of these gizmos.

So UAVs are exactly the type of technology that will see rapid uptake, and they have the potential to be powerfully transformative, changing farming culture in unexpected ways.

For example, UAVs could end what some extension workers have dubbed "drive-by crop scouting" when the farmer inspects the crop out the window of the pickup. It could also replace the evening crop tour, which is the closest some farm couples get to a date during the busy summer months. Doing it all by drone might not have the same romantic appeal.

But for now, it's all theoretical. According to Transport Canada regulations, any farmer caught flying one of these UAVs without a Special Flight Operations Certificate could face stiff fines, even if they are doing it on their own property. Transport Canada policy, as outlined on its website, states UAVs must meet equivalent levels of safety as manned aircraft.

Federal officials told the Manitoba Co-operator using these devices for crop scouting is deemed a commercial activity because the farmer could benefit economically. And all commercial uses for UAVs require the flight operations certificate.

The way the rules are currently written, these certificates, which take weeks to acquire, must be obtained before each flight. But department officials have also said they are looking for ways to make the system more flexible.

It seems logical people wanting to acquire and operate these devices should receive basic training designed to ensure competency, and to prevent them from interfering with manned aircraft sharing the skies or from being a pest to their neighbours. Operators should be required to have liability insurance in case they crash and damage someone else's property.

But farm lobbyists will undoubtedly be pushing federal aviation authorities to give farmers the flexibility they need to put this technology to use. Requiring them to go through an application process to obtain a permit every time they want to fly one will prove so impractical, it will be openly flaunted. From an enforcement standpoint, it's virtually impossible to play "catch me if you can" on the wide-open spaces of the Prairies.

Now that they've seen what this technology can do, it's unlikely farmers will leave it on the shelf.


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 B8

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