Drones in the tens of thousands will be in the skies by 2030, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts. But where some may fear precision weapons or flying spy cameras, Steve Markofski sees flying tractors.
Markofski, a new business planner for Yamaha, hopes to repeat in the United States the success that the company has had in Japan with RMAX, an unmanned aerial vehicle that sprays fertilizer and herbicides over farms there.
"In Japan, the RMAX has more in common with a tractor than it does with a helicopter," said Markofski, describing the remote-controlled helicopter that has been used in that country for two decades.
Agriculture is expected to be one of the biggest potential markets for drones in the U.S., as the FAA develops regulations to open the skies by 2015 and commercial uses grow for unmanned aerial vehicles - UAVs, or drones.
In Arizona, where thousands are already employed in drone production or related industries, new commercial markets could mean new jobs.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicted high demand for agricultural drones that will be able to spray crops with herbicides and pesticides and offer access to cheap, timely data on crop health.
"The case for precision agriculture is one based on economic efficiency," said Darryl Jenkins, author of the association's March report.
He said drones will be used to survey huge farms and pinpoint areas in need of fertilizer and pesticides to prevent waste. Current crop surveys and dusting can be done with planes or helicopters, but drones will make the technology more affordable and accessible.
Robert Blair, an Idaho wheat farmer, started looking into unmanned aircraft as a surveying solution in 2006, after spending $9,000 on a single manned aircraft flight and then waiting weeks to get the data.
After some experimenting with a kit, he decided to build his own. The result is a drone that weighs less than 10 pounds, has a 9-foot wingspan and gives him timely information about disease, weeds and water on his 1,500 acres that he could not otherwise get.
Blair estimates that, including the cost of all the trade shows he attended to do research, he has put about $300,000 into his UAV. But besides being faster, it is cheaper to operate a drone than it would be to hire a plane and pilot to do the same job, he said.
Even though the FAA prohibits flying drones for commercial purposes, it allows remote-control flying by hobbyists, rules that Blair follows when surveying his land. Since seeing the benefits of drone farming, he has lobbied his state senators and the FAA to make sure large agricultural trade groups have a seat at the table as regulations are developed.
Blair believes that unmanned aircraft are the missing piece in precision agriculture that will take the world to the next level of production necessary to feed an exploding population, and that is why he continues to use them.
"There are a few points in time when a person can effect positive change in an industry that they love," he said.
He also feels agricultural drones should be managed separately from drones doing public-safety work, because he believes the farm UAVs pose less threat to privacy and safety.
Jenkins predicts there will be more opportunity for entrepreneurs interested in producing and providing services with small drones rather than competing with large, established companies.
A three-DAY SERIES
• Sunday: Arizona boom seen in drone businesses.
• Today: Potential for farm equipment.
• Tuesday: Drone-design schools in the state.