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August 22, 2013

Could drones 'spy' on the peanuts?

MOULTRIE, Ga. — It’s not exactly beating swords into plowshares, but drone technology used in warfare could one day fight weeds and disease that threaten crops.

Unmanned helicopters have been surveying small cotton and peanut plots at Moultrie's Sunbelt Agriculture Exposition this summer. Images from the craft can spot potential problems, saving farmers a lot of walking through the fields, says a team leading the trials.

In the future, larger aircraft could spray insecticides and other chemicals, treating small areas of crops to ward off larger infestations.

“This has so much potential,” Glen Harris, a University of Georgia extension cotton agronomist working on the team. “I’m excited to see what the rest of the flights will reveal."

The military has led the development of flying drones, and law enforcement is adapting them to civilian use. Unmanned aircraft are finding business uses, as well, though the Federal Aviation Administration is still writing rules governing their commercial use.

The South Georgia team has drawn attention and support from agricultural and aviation agencies, as well as Guided Systems Technologies of Stockbridge, Ga., which built the helicopters. Middle Georgia State College's aviation campus has conducted the flights over five-acre plots of cotton and peanuts.

John Beasley, a UGA peanut agronomist on the team, said the drones can assess a large field that would take hours to scout by foot - and do it better. That's especially powerful given far fewer peanut producers in the state - about 4,000 to 4,500 - who manage roughly the same number of crops as was once cultivated by 14,000 farmers.

“Imagine the man hours it’s going to save. Imagine the preciseness we can have," said Beasley. "What I like is the preciseness.”

The 25-pound helicopter used in the Moultrie trials and its systems would cost $60,000 to $80,000, making it cost prohibitive to most smaller producers. But Eric Corban, founder and owner of Guided Systems Technologies, said the price will come down with time.

Alan Mauldin writes for The Moultrie Observer.

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