Drones help local farmers, businesses

Doug Wilson
The Herald Whig
In this June 9, 2017 photo, Jim Robesky hovers his DJI Phantom drone at eye level with  the remote control, at Parker Heights Park in Quincy, Ill. The drone has a small video/still camera below which he can view from his phone with the downloaded app. Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, are a hot item right now. The Consumer Technology Association said about 2.8 million drones were sold in the United States last year.

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) - As Greg Mitts guides an aerial drone over farm fields he creates more than just pictures. He can provide farmers with detailed data that can locate bug infestations, plant diseases and harvest indicators.

"We create a 3-D model of the field that lets the farmer turn and twist and look at things, down to a half-inch detail of the crop itself," Mitts said.

Mitts and his wife, Paige, founded Vision Quest in 2009. The couple, who split their time between Quincy and South Carolina, bought their first drone in 2013. Initially, they used the remote controlled aircraft to shoot video of hotels, real estate listings and businesses. They have traveled to all 48 of the continental United States doing that work.

Now they are doing more work for farmers.

"We believe that drone technology in agriculture will account for 80 percent of drone use in the future," Paige Mitts said.

Drones -- also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs -- are a hot item right now. The Consumer Technology Association said about 2.8 million drones were sold in the United States last year. Industry experts say as prices come down, they expect sales could top 5 million units this year.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been struggling to control drones for the last several years. In 2014 the agency ruled that drones could not be used for commercial purposes. At that time, Paige Mitts said the drone they used to shoot 360-degree pictures could be used to take pictures of her mother-in-law's garden but not the corn field adjacent to the garden.

The FAA considered rules that would require a drone pilot to obtain a license. Later the certification for operators was spelled out in greater detail and did not require operators to be airplane pilots.

Starting in December 2015, the FAA said all UAVs had to be registered, with owners paying a $5 fee. A federal appeals court in Washington D.C., ruled last month that the FAA lacks the authority to regulate "model aircraft" as spelled out in a 2012 federal law. That has brought registration to a near halt.

Other rules remain. Personal drones must be within sight of the operator and may not be operated within five miles of an airport without prior notification to the airport and traffic controllers.

There are tighter rules on drones used for commercial uses. They must fly within 400 feet of the ground and at speeds of 100 mph or less. Drones may not fly over people and cannot be controlled from a moving vehicle.

The FAA also has ruled that all agricultural drone usage is considered a commercial use.

Greg Mitts, who has been a professional photographer for 15 years, received his commercial certification and has been using drones to shoot 3-D models, images from nonvisible light spectrums and other data that can be used to program farm equipment. Producers can then use pesticides, fertilizers or other applications on only the parts of the fields that need treatment.

Paige Mitts said the couple also is offering their expertise to farmers and others who want to buy a drone.

"You can buy a drone anywhere, but the question is what can you do with it and what do you get out of it?" Paige Mitts said.

"Instead of dealing with this (steep) learning curve they can get the drone delivered to us, and we'll bring it to their field and set it up and guide the person through it all."

Jim Robesky of Quincy is a recreational drone user. He has been flying a quadcopter drone for several years after first getting into radio-controlled airplanes in the 1990s.

"It's the most user-friendly piece of equipment there is," Robesky said.

For Robesky and other hobbyists, the drones are just fun. He also has noticed the number of UAVs is on the rise.

Chris Kelley of Table 16 Productions initially resisted the use of drones. Kelley does videos, still pictures, TV spots and films.

"People tend to rely on it too much when they find a new tool. I want to use it sparingly and make it count, but sometimes it's the best route to get a project done," Kelley said.

When the FAA registration law took effect, Kelley was certified as a UAV operator. He has been using his drone on jobs but still is not satisfied with all of the results.

"I love flying the drone. It's really fun,"Kelley said.

It also is a big responsibility. He said the certification process for business users is meant to "weed out the idiots" who might not focus on safety.

Global reports show several drones have hit, or nearly hit, several helicopters and planes. U.S. rules also will not allow the craft to hover or fly directly over people.

"If you're flying toward a crowd of people there's some rules that have to be followed," Kelley said.

"I'm happy that rules are in place to protect people and that I can use (drones) to make a little money, too."