Business

07.02.13

Sen. Jerry Moran Advocates Drones for Agriculture

Some lawmakers and industry representatives say using drones on heartland farms will create jobs, while others say that’s just a prelude to increased domestic surveillance. Miranda Green on the debate.

While many in the U.S. are split on how to view drones, some politicians are trying to change the perception of drones by highlighting their potential in an unlikely sector: agriculture.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas will advocate for the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) on farms Tuesday at a demonstration of the systems at Kansas State University. "I think there's a stereotype of UAS,” Moran told The Daily Beast. “What I'm hoping in a broad sense will happen from this demonstration is an understanding of non-military, non-intelligence application of these vehicles, which I think is a different story than what is normally told.”

At the display, representatives from KSU as well as the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) will fly drones and allow the public to handle them while emphasizing the potential for UAS to be economy drivers, especially in the agriculture-heavy state of Kansas.

“Our state is significantly impacted by agricultural production, by agricultural business, and we are also an aviation state," Moran said. "The agriculture application of UAS is the great combining of the great applications of the technology."

A study released by AUVSI in March found that the unmanned aircraft industry could produce up to 100,000 new jobs and add $82 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2025. The majority of the increased activity would be in agriculture, and Kansas stands to be the seventh-largest benefactor of the technology, according to the study.

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Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) taking the Senate oath of office on January 5, 2011. (Cliff Owen/AP)

“This has the ability to help you and to help the world,” AUVSI CEO Michael Toscano said. “In the sense of agriculture, we already know that by 2050 we'll have 2 billion more people on the planet and the question is how will we feed them? This is where precision agriculture is one of the solutions to that. If a farmer can increase his yield with the same amount of food with less pesticides, that's a good thing.”

Proponents of drones for agriculture say they will help farmers save money by letting them view their crops from the air and selectively determining what areas need more water and fertilizer instead of mass spraying.

Other political leaders are also vocal as to the benefits they expect to see from unmanned aircraft. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma supports bringing the technology to her state, where AUVSI predicts it will generate 545 jobs by 2017. In June, she announced Oklahoma State University as a site chosen to participate in the Department of Homeland Security's Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety Program. 

Although Oklahoma is also an agricultural community that could stand to benefit from drones, Fallin is looking to the technology largely for its search-and-rescue purposes, especially after the recent tornado that hit the town of Moore, killing 24 people.

But politicians eager to home in on the use of unmanned aircraft may face large public opposition. Since Congress passed the bill that opens the airspace to drones by 2015, 42 states have already proposed legislation preemptively limiting their use.

Nick Mottern, coordinator for Knowdrones.com, says that people should be wary of the language drone proponents use when pushing the technology domestically. He believes the life-saving elements of drones are used to open to door to drones for all purposes including unchecked police surveillance.

Since Congress passed the bill that opens airspace to drones by 2015, 42 states have proposed legislation preemptively limiting their use.

“My opinion is that the huge amount of money that will go to the airspace industry is for military and police use and the amounts of money coming from these other uses are relatively small,” he said. “These other benign interests are being used to pry open the door for all of these other uses.”

Michael Toscano thinks the negative public image surrounding drones stems from the word's connotation, which is why he prefers to the call the vehicles “unmanned aircraft systems.”

“There's a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “Most people by even using the word ‘drone’ think military, think weaponry," he said. "Once you can see it and touch it and hear about it through people you trust, it gives it more credibility."

Regardless of whether unmanned aircraft are ultimately used for agricultural purposes or search and rescue, Senator Moran thinks that the technology is a blessing that should not be cast aside because of fear.

“From my perspective, let's demonstrate the value of UAS in a commercial setting and then set regulations based on common sense and science, and not any emotional fear,” he said. “I care a lot about privacy, but there is a proper role for UAS to protect people and save lives, and while we are looking at agriculture on Tuesday, there are other ways to use UAVs to help our lives.”