Unmanned and autonomous news

January 18, 2023  - By

Browsing through the news from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, there seems to have been the regular number and variety of ‘robots’ demonstrating various capabilities from basic movement to almost complete human-like animation and speech. There were also a few more demos related to navigation and autonomy that could be of more interest to our readership. In particular, the case was made for more extensive use of drones for deliveries and in agriculture.

Apparently, the FAA was at the show – promoting the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for ‘last mile’ deliveries. The gist of one presentation was that UAV deliveries could possibly reduce the need for people to drive to a store for a pick-up. If we drive, we periodically have accidents – probably someone has estimated the probability that anyone getting into a vehicle will have an accident and suffer varying degrees of damage to property, life or limb.

So, if drone and automated ground vehicle deliveries were to be universally accepted and implemented, lives would be saved, people’s lives wouldn’t be as disrupted and costs for hospital care and vehicle repairs would be reduced. All good, right? However, people are still not sold on UAV flying over their neighborhoods because they might fall out of the sky and hurt someone or damage property, make lots of noise and disturb their peace and quiet or use the opportunity to invade their privacy. Therefore, delivery start-ups are still struggling through FAA and local red-tape to get airborne — which at this stage is probably not a bad thing — as we get safety objectives straight, and train people well enough to reduce error rates to below acceptable limits.

Another example used by the FAA at CES was the health risks for pilots of crop spraying aircraft, which are largely used on medium to large scale farms in the United States. The health hazard of the pesticide spray and aircraft accidents during aircraft crop dusting — rapidly, repeated ‘swoop’ to low over the field, low level overflight to spray, then rapid climb and turn maneuver — could be largely avoided by UAV spraying systems, which have already been implemented in many countries around the world. The problem, however, is that the adoption of UAV spraying has perhaps been slower than anticipated.


A UAV delivering groceries. Image: Walmart


Crop dusting. Image: Stefan Krause







Crop dusting aircraft can apparently treat about 600 acres/day on larger farms, while drones are only able to carry much smaller spray tanks, with a capacity of about 8 gallons, which enables spraying of 30 acres-per-hour. In addition, batteries on UAV need to be exchanged regularly, hopefully at the same time as spray tanks are refilled. While one pilot flies a crop duster aircraft, a UAV operation not only requires a skilled pilot to fly the UAV, but also a line-of-sight observer under FAA regulations. So, labor costs are higher, somewhat offsetting the lower operational costs of a UAV.

 Nevertheless, the limited number of crop dusters requires scheduling out days, several weeks even in the busy seasons. Whereas, if you own an agricultural UAV only the weather determines when you can treat your own crops.

So why is it taking time for this alternative approach to take off?

Let’s say you buy your own small UAV — one capable of 1-2 gallons-per-acre for a small farm. You would first need to take an operator’s course and qualify for a pilot’s license, then you would have to work city hall to obtain an aerial applicator’s license and a state pesticide applicator’s license. Then you would have to pass an FAA physical, and maybe obtain an exemption to fly a UAV over the standard 55 lb weight. If you wanted to fly after dark, you would also need a night operator’s license. If you wanted to fly several UAV simultaneously (a swarm) to get the job done quickly, you would need to train and become qualified. These things are a significant barrier to entry for individual farmers. Therefore, companies are springing up that will charge equivalent prices for turn-key UAV crop applications as for aerial crop dusting – say between $11 -14 per acre.


Autonomous AG-116 crop-spraying drone. Image: Hilio

UAV do have a place in the business of agriculture for crop spaying, even alongside conventional crop-dusting aircraft, and costs seem to be competitive if a farmer were to buy turn-key spraying. The obstacles to overcome for someone to start a UAV spraying business seem somewhat prohibitive, but companies are taking on the challenge and offering services. Farm owners who want to manage their own regular pesticide and fertilizer applications using their own UAV have a steep learning curve to climb.

This article is tagged with , , , and posted in Latest News, Machine Control/Ag, Opinions, UAV/UGV

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).