Unmanned aerial vehicles are flying to the farm

A Georgia consortium is poised to be a leader in unmanned aerial vehicle technologies for farming.

A statewide working group that includes state and federal government, industry and academia, has been working since 2009 to develop a type of drone that can save a farmer's time and resources during the growing season.

At a recent flight demonstration over a working research farm on the grounds of the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition, members of the project discussed the enterprise.


"We've been working between the Center for Innovation for Aerospace, and the Center for Innovation for Agribusiness on how to take that aerospace technology of unmanned systems and apply it to agriculture, and to increase the yield and the profits in our agricultural sector," said Steve Justice, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace.

By deploying a UAV with a multi-spectral camera to survey crops, imaging technologies can detect water and nutrition issues, insect infestation and fungal infections.

"The UAV saves a tremendous amount of time," said Eric Corban, founder and chief technology officer for Guided Systems Technologies Inc., a Stockbridge, Ga. company that helped develop the program software. "Traditionally you would walk the field, and you would only get a small portion of the field sample. The UAV can do it in a fraction of that time, and cover the entire field."

Although the technology is only in the testing phase, commercial use could begin once the Federal Aviation Administration issues rules.

"We're working very close with the FAA," Justice said. "They have direction from the Congress to issue rules for the use of unmanned aircraft systems by the fall of 2015."

Once those rules are in place, the Georgia group believes its partnership will be at the forefront of the U.S. commercial market.

"I think Georgia has a very unique aspect here," said Chad Dennis, the program's director for the Georgia Centers of Innovation. "We're probably the first state to put all the pieces of the puzzle together."

Agriculture has had a rich history of technology advances but one industry veteran thinks the use of farm drones may top the list.

Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission, has been with the agency for nearly three decades.

"I've seen us go from two-row planting equipment and harvesting, and everything, to really big equipment," Koehler said. "I've seen a lot that's gone on, I've seen yields go up. But in that 28 years, I don't think I've seen what I'll see in the next eight years."