When Farmer Brown drones on, he might not be talking Using airplanes to guide plowshares

Thomas Zajkowski, of North Carolina State University, shows how the camera works on a Verio unmanned aircraft.

FLORENCE — Some of the biggest technological wonders of this year’s S.C. AgriBiz and Farm Expo aren’t the gleaming tractors parked here outside the Civic Center.

Instead, they’re the small drones inside.

Researchers here predicted that in the near future, the advances in unmanned airplanes and lightweight camera equipment will allow many farmers to use them to monitor their fields.

Thomas Zajkowski, with North Carolina State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education, said military applications have advanced the drones, which he prefers to call “unmanned aircraft systems.”

“We don’t like to use the ‘D’ word,” he said.

Zajkowski and Chris Post of Clemson University’s Laboratory for Applied UAS Research saw a steady stream of traffic Thursday, the first day of the expo. They were joined by Chris Robson of CaronEastInc, a sales representative from West Virginia.

More research is needed before drones in the air help out down on the farm, but that could be just a few years away.

Initial experiments are underway in North and South Carolina, and the first applications could come in vineyards and coffee plantations, both considered high-value crops.

“When you harvest the grapes can make the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $100 bottle of wine,” Zajkowski said.

Robson said farmers have used satellite imagery to check their fields, but that resolution usually is about one pixel of resolution for every three feet. The cameras in the unmanned aircraft have a resolution of one pixel for every 1.5 inches.

“We can almost count the corn in the corn rows,” he said. “Our company is releasing a new 4 Band camera that has the ability to identify the chlorophyll content of a plant.”

Still, a big hurdle is working with the Federal Aviation Administration on the rules. Currently, farmers may fly such planes below 400 feet over their own land, provided they’re far enough away from an airport or populated area.

Post and Zajkowski had hoped to demonstrate the unmanned planes here Friday, but their plan didn’t get off the ground.

“Unfortunately, the FAA did not give us permission,” Post said.

The planes’ true promise will come when their images are coupled with precise geographic information that in turn can be fed into a harvester so fields get just enough — but not too much — fertilizer, irrigation and pesticide.

“For less than $1 of electricity, you can survey 500 acres in 30 minutes,” Post said. “It’s going to be a huge economic and environmental impact. It’s going to be a competitive advantage.”

The three models displayed ranged in price from about $13,000 to $80,000, with the most expensive drone made of Kevlar. The less expensive models are crafted from EPP foam, a material commonly used in car bumpers. They weigh less than 2 pounds.

“It’s so light, it has a low inertia,” Post said, adding such a plane, with a propeller in the back, would be very unlikely to injure someone on the ground.

Robson said Friday he did not make any sales this week, but he had plenty of interest.

“This is more of an opportunity for us to inform the agriculture community in this area what’s available now and what’s coming down the pike,” he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.