Drones to aid farm­ing have taken off

USA TODAY International Edition - - STATE-BY-STATE - Trevor Hughes

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.

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