On a late summer day in the southeast corner of Virginia passersby got a brief glimpse of agriculture in the future, as researchers from Virginia Tech University and the University of Florida mapped a soybean field using a low-flying drone, equipped with high tech cameras.

The test run was repeated the following day at the Virginia Ag Expo, held at the Fields of Hope Farm near Virginia Beach. 

The combination of high resolution pictures from the previous days’ flight and a close up look at the drone piqued the interest of numerous farmers and crop consultants.

Virginia Tech Scientist Jim Owen says technology for the small, battery-powered aircraft has come a long way in the past couple of years, but regulations for their use remains a little cloudy at best.

“Right now, as we understand FAA (Federal Aeronautical Administration) rules, if you are flying this aircraft on your property, you can be classified as a ‘hobbyist’, which require no Federal license,” Owen says.

“However, if you are flying the drone for profit and flying it over someone else’s land, you have to have permission to be there and an FAA license, something akin to a pilot’s license,” he explains.

“Therein lies a potential limitation to the practical use of these machines for agriculture. The most likely use of a scout drone is by crop scouts or agricultural consultants. And, as we understand the law right now, that require an FAA license,” the Virginia Tech researcher says.