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Agriculture, public safety may gain most from UAVs

It might not be a surprise to learn that in Music City the entertainment industry has embraced drones in a big way. But an industry trade group points to agriculture and public safety as areas prime for drone adoption nationwide.

Rocky Davidson, contact person for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with the FAA’s Nashville district office, offers a rundown on local drone adoption. Here, he says, drones have been used mainly to make films and music videos.

As of this summer, before Part 107 [new FAA rules] took effect, 387 applications to fly small drones had been granted in the Nashville area, roughly all of Tennessee east of the Tennessee River, Davidson says.

By his estimate, probably 80 percent of the applications were for entertainment-business purposes. Another 10 percent were for architects who wanted to use drones to film construction projects, and the last 10 percent accounted for everything else, including real estate brokers filming properties, he says.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) sees the greatest potential for drone use in agriculture and public safety.

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John “Glad” Castellaw, chief executive officer of the agricultural drone services and equipment company Farmspace Systems LLC, says low commodity prices in recent years have placed a damper on farmers’ demand for using drones.

“Having said that, there’s still tremendous interest,” he explains, especially since the FAA released the Part 107 rules for small commercial drones.

Farmspace’s operations include flying drones for both agricultural and nonagricultural clients, reselling new and used drones; repairing unmanned aircraft and conducting research and development.

Drone imaging in agriculture builds on past practices of gathering crop data from overhead via airplanes and even satellites.

Drones have the capacity to provide higher-resolution images, from a kind of rough eyeballing of crops that reveals bare spots and weed growth, to more detailed and more expensive imaging that can measure heat, moisture and the health of crops, says Lori Duncan, row crop sustainability specialist with UT Extension Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville. The more detailed the information, the more precisely a farmer can apply water, fertilizer or pesticides, for example.

Most of the current agricultural drone usage is at the lower end, Castellaw says, to just get a look at a field from above. Only about 20 to 30 percent of farmers are really set up to use the higher-end capabilities, using imaging systems that can cost $50,000 or more, Castellaw says.

MTSU student Thomas Keene, left, works with Austin Inglis, center, and T.J. Caldwell on ideas for drones to better hold and distribute pesticides. MTSU Aerospace is partnering with the school’s agriculture department on ways to implement drones in crop production.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

These multispectral imaging systems pick up more information about how light interacts with the object being observed than is visible to humans, who can see only part of the light spectrum.

The data we can’t see can be analyzed for clues about what is going on in the field. For example, the multispectral system can tell what the plants are deficient in and can better differentiate between types of plants on the ground, such as weeds versus cultivated crops.

Drone usage in public safety is another area that AUVSI mentions for potential growth.

Jud McCracken, building drones in a Middle Tennessee State University course, works with the Rutherford County Amateur Radio Emergency Service, ham radio operators who offer their communications capabilities in emergencies. He is auditing the course to learn how drones can help his group.

“We want to be able to look the area over to decide where to put our communications van,” he explains. “We like to be involved in search and rescue.”

At Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, students learned about the potential for drone use in public safety in a new class on criminal justice technology and information systems. Criminal justice director Kevin Cook taught the course.

Students used drones in simulated suspect-apprehension and search-and-rescue situations and learned they could find people faster when using the drone to scout out the area.

“You can fly them over a huge amount of area, covering and looking for someone a lot faster than someone on the ground,” Cook explains.

Law enforcement agencies have been cautious about adopting drone programs, and most haven’t, Nashville attorney James Mackler says.

Individual states have passed laws restricting the use of drones for gathering evidence, he adds, and law enforcement agencies have been concerned about public reaction to use of drones.

But, Mackler says, police departments can implement policies to address public concerns and allow drone use in appropriate situations.

He sees drones as suited for emergency-response situations such as active shooters and release of hazardous materials.

Patton Webb