Farmer Hopes To Sell Commercial UAVs

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An Idaho farmer who uses an unmanned aircraft for precision farming hopes to find a market for his specialty UAV. Blair calls his 9-foot wingspan unmanned reconnaissance aircraft "a hobby plane on steroids." It weighs in at about ten pounds, carries two digital cameras, is onboard-GPS-guided, usually flies between 400 and 2,000 feet AGL, cruises at about 35 mph and can cover up to 640 acres in less than half an hour. The vehicle provides Blair with on-demand service (in winds less than 20 mph), taking pictures of his wheat, barley, pea, lentil and garbanzo bean crops, plus hay and cattle on his 1,500-acre Idaho farm. The system provides substantially more flexibility at a lower cost than satellite and fixed-wing aircraft. (The latter once cost him about $9,000 per flight.) Blair says using a UAV allows him to make timely and localized highly efficient adjustments to his crops and land both during and after the growing season, boosting his productivity while saving money on seed and fertilizer. "With unmanned aircraft systems, we're trying to bring everything together so a farmer can have everything at his fingertips whenever he wants," Blair said. He's already filed paperwork seeking the FAA's approval for the next step -- commercialization.

The system Blair is using was modified from one he purchased. It is hand-launched and flies mostly on autopilot but can be controlled from the ground. He estimates that the aircraft when commercialized could sell for about $15,000. For that price, buyers would also get the software and training necessary to make the most of their vehicles.