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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Most Harvest Public Media stories begin with radio- regular reports are aired on member stations in the Midwest. But Harvest also explores issues through online analyses, television documentaries and features, podcasts, photography, video, blogs and social networking. They are committed to the highest journalistic standards. Click here to read their ethics standards.Harvest Public Media was launched in 2010 with the support of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Today, the collaboration is supported by CPB, the partner stations, and contributions from underwriters and individuals.Tri States Public Radio is an associate partner of Harvest Public Media. You can play an important role in helping Harvest Public Media and Tri States Public Radio improve our coverage of food, field and fuel issues by joining the Harvest Network.

Watch: 5 Ways Drones Help Bring Food to Your Table

Jesse Howe for Harvest Public Media
Aerial Imagery is the most common use for drones in agriculture. Taking inch-by-inch resolution imagery allows for precise use of chemicals and the detecting issues with equipment.

Drones are not just a hot gift item or a weapon for use by the military. They're also helping farmers change the landscape of agriculture. 

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that 80 percent of drones in the commercial sector will be used for agriculture, according to USA Today​.

Alongside unmanned tractors and satellite technology, drones are seen by many as part of the next generation of “precision agriculture” tools, able to use Big Data to improve agricultural practices and efficiency. Though still in its infancy as a tool, here are five ways drones are already impacting the food system.

1.     Providing Aerial Imagery

Getting a bird’s-eye-view can help farmers in many ways. Drones can detect issues such as off-kilter tractors and broken irrigation lines from above. Whereas satellites can only pass over ground every two weeks or so, and airplanes are expensive and can be impacted by clouds, drones can fly closer to the ground, allowing in some cases for centimeter-level clarity.

2. Keeping Controlled Burns Safe

Farmers often initiate controlled burns on their fields between growing seasons to prepare the soil. Though common, burns carry many risks. Using a drone, however, allows people to stay farther away from flames. Drones can start the controlled fires and can monitor progress from above.

3. Monitoring Crop Health

Drones also have the capability to carry high-tech imagery software, such as Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) software, and thermal imaging filters. This technology can detect when vegetation is low on water and minerals, and can also detect diseases. Thermal imaging filters can detect E. coli in livestock and give producers a jumpstart at containing an outbreak.

4. Detecting Soil Health

When drones are equipped with NDVI a farmer can also detect changes in soil. Farmers can study soil moisture levels, allowing for optimal crop growth, and lead levels, indicating whether the soil is toxic.

5. Precise delivery of inputs

About 516 million pounds of pesticides were used in the U.S. in 2008, according to a USDA study. Pesticides can drift from their intended target onto neighboring fields, putting crops and people in danger. Drones can deliver chemicals in precise amounts, which helps minimize runoff and over-use.

New capabilities to harvest information via drone have drawn criticism, as many voice privacy concerns. Most regulations regarding drones exist in the realm of military use. This lack of regulation isn’t just worrisome for those concerned with privacy, but growers whose drones are grounded due to ​a lack of delegated airspace for drones.

Lawmakers are gradually passing regulations intended to clarify the landscape; both agriculture and real estate markets in Idaho and Arizona were permitted in 2015 to fly drones, for instance. These new permits require a ground pilot and an observer, along with an FAA private pilot certificate. Currently, the ​FAA does not allow drones to be used for commercial operations unless operators apply for a special exemption.

Despite these limitations, many expect to see drones hovering our fields in the near future. 

This story was produced by Kansas City Public Television in Kansas City, Missouri.