From an auspicious beginning — with intended uses like data collection for farmers — unmanned aerial vehicles have increasingly become associated with military operations in the public consciousness. Yet, as drones become more pervasive in our society, attention is refocusing on the potential commercial uses for the technology. Companies like Google, Amazon and the Walt Disney Corporation are paving the way for the use of drones to conduct mapmaking, provide entertainment services, respectively.
The largest potential market for domestic commercial use remains the industry that developers first eyed for drone use — agriculture. The growing trend of “precision agriculture,” which uses high-tech systems to help farmers increase yield while cutting costs, could utilize consumer-quality drones for data collection purposes, but FAA rules currently restrict their use to recreation and research, with few exceptions. The result is a growing export market, with manufacturers focusing their sales internationally, where regulations tend to be less strict.
Demand is increasing domestically for changes in regulations that would allow farmers and others to put drones to commercial use. The unmanned aerial systems can be utilized to fly over fields — streaming photos and videos to a ground station where the images can be analyzed to quickly gauge crop health. Beyond that, drones can be modified to land and take soil and water samples.
Agricultural use may also be a perfect proving ground for commercial drone use, due to the rural operations creating fewer privacy and safety concerns. A 2013 study estimates that integrating drones into domestic airspace would generate more than $2.3 billion in California over the first three years, likely creating more than 12,000 jobs in this state alone. Though drones would be valuable throughout the industry, benefits may be even greater for cultivators of high-value crops, such as California’s wine grape growers.
The benefits of domestic commercial drone use may be widespread, but the perceived risks to public safety and privacy remain at the center of the debate and must be addressed before drones can be fully integrated into our airspace The FAA is in the process of developing rules for domestic use, which are expected to be released late next year. In the meantime, state and local regulations exist in a gray area, as preemption concerns may arise once those rules are handed down.