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WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Agricultural industries are gearing up to take flight with unmanned aerial systems as the Federal Aviation Administration has begun to more rapidly approve requests to fly small drones for a broad array of uses.
The FAA this month began accelerating its exemption approvals for companies testing the skies with drone technology. Most industry people refer to the small flying objects as UAVs -- unmanned aerial vehicles. The FAA calls them UASs -- unmanned aerial systems.
As of Thursday, FAA had granted 207 exemptions to companies to fly UAS operations, of which 138 have been approved just since an expedited process began in April, the FAA stated. Real estate developers, miners, pipeline companies, railroads, hazmat teams, videography companies, utility companies and survey companies are among the main applicants. However, some recognizable agricultural companies such as ADM Crop Risk Services and Climate Corp. have also been approved this month.
About one in every six or seven business approvals cites agricultural survey practices as the company's main purpose for wanting to use drones, according to the FAA permits.
ADM's approval was specifically for its crop-insurance division. In its application to the FAA, the company noted that UASs/UAVs would allow ADM Crop Risk Services "to map crop acres more efficiently and assess crop damage faster and safer than ever before."
Greg Mills, president of ADM Crop Risk Services, said in an interview with DTN that UASs/UAVs could dramatically change the way the crop-insurance industry operates in coming years. For 2015, however, Mills said the company will largely be testing flight machines, software and the kind of terrain that would be optimal for using the equipment.
"We have several hypotheses on the UAV platform, and the software attached to it will make it so we can deliver a claims check faster to a farmer," Mills said. "So this year is a year of experimentation."
If all goes well, then ADM Crop Risk Services will launch its UAV systems regionally in 2016. Given privacy concerns some producers have about big data and drone technology, Mills stressed that customers will have to agree to let ADM fly the systems over their fields.
While ADM and other companies are among the first to test UAV/UAS systems, Mills said he believes more companies involved in crop insurance will also take a look at how those systems can be used. Mills said insurers are under margin pressure because of changes in the crop insurance program and structural changes in agriculture that will force crop insurers to investigate new technologies to deliver services. UAVs are just one of the potential tools there.
"This is what I see as an efficiency and cost-saving move," Mills said. "I think the industry will eventually have to come to grips with how they can deploy new technologies. There are a lot of other new technologies rumbling around as well. While I have not seen any of the other crop-insurance companies actively discussing this, we have been expressing this with meetings with customers and meetings with employees that we were going down this path for maybe a year, because the functionality of what the UAV platform provides seems to be fairly obvious."
Understanding the potential accuracy and limitations on UAVs requires ADM Crop Risk to take the time this year experimenting with the machines, Mills said.
"We want to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars, so if we can figure out a way to be more efficient, we're saving everybody," he said.