Why florists, farmers and beer brewers want drones

Deutsche Post Tests Deliveries With Drones

A quadcopter drone arrives with a small delivery at Deutsche Post headquarters on December 9, 2013 in Bonn, Germany.

Over the weekend, BP won the race to fly the first fully legal commercial drone over U.S. soil. Getting the Federal Aviation Administration’s OK apparently took more than a year of wrangling. The FAA has been working on a set of less-arduous guidelines for years, but those are still months away at best— much to the frustration of many businesses.

For instance: sunflower farmers. “The sunflower crop is anywhere from 6 to 7 feet tall and has a large canopy of leaves,” says John Sandbakken, who runs the National Sunflower Association. “It’s very difficult to see, down below, what’s going on. This is something, with a drone, you could fly over, get a much better visual of what’s really happening.”

The Sunflower Association is one of more than 30 organizations that have asked the FAA to speed up new regulations.

Who else could use a drone? Anybody who deals with one of what Mike Toscano calls “the Four D's: The dirty, difficult, dangerous and dull jobs that human beings are faced with.”

Toscano runs the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems— a drone trade group— which last year released a study claiming drones could add $27 million a day to the U.S. economy.

He says drones have two specialties. One is delivery: "whether you’re delivering tacos, beer, medicine, food, water, cellphones or whatever." Two: "They’re good at situational awareness,” he says.

They're good at checking things out, he says, like those sunfllower crops, or BP’s oilfield. Toscano thinks that capability is where the next round of approved activity will take place, monitoring crops, pipelines, maybe even smokestack emissions. Even Hollywood’s a candidate.

Meanwhile, a lot of small-timers have started jumping the gun, including florists, real-estate photographers from Manhattan to Peoria, and an online pharmacy.

“By and large, FAA enforcement has been spotty, and so they’ve been able to do so with impunity,” says Rebecca MacPherson, a former FAA attorney.

So far, the FAA has only attempted to penalize one commercial drone user, and in that case, a federal judge ruled in March that the agency lacked authority to regulate.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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