Photograph courtesy National Geographic Studios
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A farmer tosses a drone into the field to get a bird's eye view of his crops.
Photograph courtesy National Geographic Studios

Drones: Coming Soon to a Farm Near You?

From smartphones in the field to driverless tractors, farming is rapidly evolving. The next logical move, some say, are drones.

“UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, i.e. drones] are the natural extension of increasing the yield and the quality of the products we grow,” Phil Hamm, agricultural drone evangelist and plant pathologist at Oregon State University, tells National Geographic’s video team. That’s because drones can fly over individual crop rows in vast fields and let farmers know which specific plants are infested with beetles or which ones could use more fertilizer, he says. This may prevent farmers from blanketing too many plants with nitrogen and water, saving them time and money in the end.

Drones and the Future of Farming

In fact, drones have the potential to change a lot about our food system, from faster delivery of our groceries, (thanks, Amazon!) to allowing us a better view of commercial animal feeding operations (see How Drones Will Change the Way You Eat). But not everyone is thrilled at the prospect. Privacy advocates have raised concerns about both commercial drones and ones specifically designed for law enforcement to monitor the population.

Still, hundreds, if not thousands of farmers are buying them and hoping their investment pays off.

But it remains to be seen how exactly they will be able to use them legally. The Federal Aviation Administration recently published a first round of rules focused on safety, but privacy issues have yet to be addressed at the federal level.