Graves-Chapple Hosts Test Drone Sites



Aug. 28–CORNING, Mo. — A drone — the controversial high-science aircraft targeted by privacy groups — went into action Tuesday before curious farmers in rural Atchison County.

Before it became airborne, University Extension Regional Engineer Kent Shannon counseled the farmers to reference the device by a politically correct title recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We’re not really talking about drones,” he said. “We’re talking about unmanned aerial vehicles. We hear about this technology all the time, in Afghanistan and the Middle East.”

A signboard, brochures and a bullhorn billed the field day sessions as featuring drones rather than referring to any other description.

Such a device, Mr. Shannon said, can be put to good use in the agricultural world. Farmers, for instance, could initially use the craft for an overhead look at the condition of their crop fields.

“Can you personally have one of these? The answer is yes,” he said. “You can’t use these commercially.”

The toy-like device shown at the 25th annual Graves-Chapple Research Center Field Day can be equipped with a high-definition camera to shoot video and still photos. The FAA is limiting the craft to a maximum height of 400 feet, with the operator continually maintaining visual contact. It has a range of almost a quarter mile and can be flown for 10 minutes at a time. Pre-programming of flight plans is an option.

“It’s pretty stable,” Mr. Shannon said. “Even with the wind, you can still do a pretty good job….You’d be surprised how tough this thing is.”

The quadcopter drone has only crashed twice: once at another University Extension research center and at the Graves-Chapple facility itself prior to field day. With Mr. Shannon at the helm of a remote control, it performed flawlessly for at least one group of farmers.

Besides the United States, other nations possessing the agricultural drone technology include Switzerland and Japan — where some of the machines are being used to spray rice paddies. The University of California-Davis is experimenting with the use of drones at vineyards.

“Folks are talking about these and getting them out there,” Mr. Shannon said.

He has opened a 60-to-90-day process that seeks FAA authorization for agricultural drones. He distanced the devices’ purpose from that of reporters at journalism schools at the University of Missouri-Columbia and University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Last week, the FAA grounded the drones from use in news-gathering operations at the schools.

State Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, sponsored an anti-drone bill earlier this year in the Missouri House. Mr. Guernsey told the News-Press on Tuesday he will likely refile the bill next year — but only in a version passed by a Missouri Senate subcommittee.

“The bill, if passed, would not affect any type of unmanned aerial robotic technology,” he said. “It would not prevent the use of such drones for agriculture or any business application, for that matter.”

Mr. Guernsey said his bill would prohibit using the technology solely for surveillance.

Other than field scouting, the drones could eventually be used for spraying pesticides and one day carry low-cost infrared imagery sensors.

“This could be a monitoring device for livestock,” Mr. Shannon said.

In its most basic form, the devices cost $650 and can have a $400 camera with Wi-Fi installed, complemented with a $150 case. Prices should fall as the technology advances.

“It does have GPS in it” and comes with running lights, he said.

A fixed-wing version of the agricultural drone is also available. Kansas State University has a prototype of a fixed-wing drone.

“I have found a fixed-wing (drone) that I’m interested in,” he said. “That’s going to require more paperwork.”

The Missouri Department of Conservation is interested in using drones to assist with waterfowl counts.

Displays and demonstrations of the agricultural drone will also be featured at today’s Hundley-Whaley Field Day in Albany, Mo.