Drones to aid farming have taken off
GRAND FORKS North Dakota’s windswept prairie and farmers’ fields are turning out an unusual crop: drones.
One of the nation’s most rural states has quickly become one of the leading spaces for drone research, experimentation and testing.
Space is the key word, since the sparsely populated state (760,000) has plenty of room to fly. Farmers in particular see the drones as valuable tools to monitor the state’s 39 million acres of agricultural land spread across 30,000 farms.
The drones flown in North Dakota are often far more sophisticated, expensive and heavier than the ones consumers can get from Best Buy. They have sensors that “see” in the infrared spectrum and have far greater flight times and maneuverability.
The sensors are so good that farmers can count exactly how many cornstalks are growing in a single acre, allowing them to save money on fertilizer and fuel, which keeps food costs low.
It’s a far cry from the kinds of scenic shots hobbyists take.
“You don’t just get a pretty picture,” said Kaci Lemler, the COO of Grand Forks-based agricultural drone company Field of View. “You get a pretty picture of an exact place on Earth.”
Federal aviation officials closely restrict where and when most people can fly drones for commercial purposes. Portions of North Dakota received a special waiver giving pilots there much broader latitude, allowing some of them to use drones at night to search for murder suspects and fly beyond the pilot’s line of sight.
Grand Forks is home to the nation’s first commercial unmanned aircraft systems business park, Grand Sky.
Goldman Sachs estimates the worldwide drone industry could be worth $100 billion in the next two years as consumers, governments and businesses adopt and adapt.
“This industry is moving at the speed of technology, not bureaucracy,” said Nick Flom, director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site in Grand Forks. “We want to get to a point where a farmer wakes up, pushes a button, and by the time he’s drinking his coffee, knows exactly what areas he needs to fertilize.”
Grand Forks has the USA’s first commercial unmanned aircraft systems business park.