Robert Blair, a fourth-generation wheat farmer living in Kendrick, Idaho, has been using drones in precision agriculture since 2007. “Folks think we’re standing out there in our bib overalls with a pitchfork,” he says. “But take a look at our technology. Our tractors, our auto-booms, even apps now for crop scouting. We’re all automated.”
Blair, whose family farm dates back to 1903, the year of the Wright brothers’ first flight, has been lobbying the FAA on behalf of the agriculture industry for six years now. “Like Chris Anderson and 3DR,” he says, “I just started putting my name out there.” But he still can’t get through. In fact no one from the agriculture industry, including the American Farm Bureau, which represents 6 million members, has a seat on the FAA’s rule-making committee.
“Since agriculture has been targeted as the first industry that UAVs will enter commercially, it makes sense to have someone from agriculture representing that industry,” Blair says. “But so far there isn’t. Why, I can’t say.”
Overseas, drones have already been cleared for agricultural use; in Japan drones have been applying pesticides for fifteen years. Drones can monitor water levels, soil quality, and crop stress, health, and vigor, which will allow farmers to apply resources more tactically. The public wants less water and fewer pesticides and chemicals used on crops, and Blair feels drones will help farmers rise to the steep challenges that they face — namely feeding 9.5 billion people by the year 2050.
So Blair is not giving up. He routinely flies to D.C. to meet with his delegates, and this year he will speak at four UAV conferences. In December, the AP ran a lengthy piece spotlighting his work. He’s also designing his own systems, built around Arduino, and is reaching out to industry partners like 3D Robotics. “There are very few times when a person can effect positive change in an industry they love,” he says. “Every year this industry waits, we’re losing potential.”
To learn more about Robert Blair’s efforts, check out his blog, The Unmanned Farmer.