Unmanned aerial vehicles taking flight in agriculture


by Cody Proctor

GREAT FALLS – When DeImna Heiken and her husband started Triangle Ag Services 15 years ago, she had no idea how advances in technology would affect farming.

Now Triangle Ag, which specializes in precision farming, is seeing a new change: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are often referred to as drones, being used by farmers to collect information on their fields.

“You could look at a wide area. Get a different view of it than you would from your pickup or on a four-wheeler and then take that information and make decisions from it.”

To help give customers more of an idea of UAVs, Heiken purchased a toy UAV.

But she admits there has been some concerns about it: “I know when I’ve showed this little toy to people who live in town or cities, the first thing they say is ‘Oh, we could fly it up and look in somebody’s window.’ Obviously that’s not going to be a good thing to do.”

Right to privacy has been one of the main concerns surrounding unmanned aircraft.

Last year, two bills prohibiting the use of drones were debated in the Montana Legislature.

Montana State Senator Ed Buttrey (R-Great Falls), a supporter of UAVs, voted ‘No’ on both bills.

He sees ag as the perfect setting for UAVs: “Crops and wildlife don’t mind their picture being taken.”

Recently Buttrey, who is also co-director of the Center of Remote Integration, recently gave a presentation in Harlowton about using unmanned aircraft systems in agriculture.

Since then, he’s received several e-mails from farmers interested in the technology: “Anything that can get them more crops and put less product and spray and water on their fields is a positive thing.”

But he says the biggest obstacle right now is the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules, which state that UAVs can only be used recreationally and must stay within 400 feet of the ground.

But Buttrey believes it’s only a matter of time” “This is not technology that has yet to be developed. It really is sitting out there. It’s been developed. It’s being built, but now we just have to allow the FAA some time and hopefully they’ll get on it pretty quickly to figure out how these things can fly and integrate in the airspace.”

Triangle Ag Services doesn’t sell UAVs for the moment, but Heiken says there’s a strong possibility they could.

She’s says they need to research which kind of model would make the most sense for their customers.

“That’s the sweet spot that we want to hit and so that’s what we want to find for UAVs is where can it actually make their lives easier, not harder because it’s a cool new toy, and save them some money along the line or some time or effort or whatever it is. It’s got to work.”

But they’ll continue to use the toy UAV they have to show the aircraft’s potential.

The FAA announced in December they have chosen six test sites for unmanned aircraft systems research, with locations in Alaska, Nevada, and North Dakota.