Off a beaten path near Whitehall Road, Mitchell Lester is flying a not-so-secret mission. Though his aircraft, a DJI Phantom 3 Pro, is named after a ghost, the cloudless day provides little cover as it dips and darts over miles of farmland.
Against the blue backdrop, the pearly Phantom stands out.
“Once you get up about 90 feet, everything looks super cool,” he said. “You keep going up and you get some really cool shots.”
Behind his glasses, his eyes follow each lilting swing as if they’re playing a giant game of aerial pong. It’s a game he’s winning. As he twiddles his thumb right, the Phantom follows suit. A twitch downward produces another marionette-like movement from the buzzing aircraft.
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Yet his feet, tucked in a pair of beat-up sneakers, remain firmly planted on solid ground. Lester, 20, is piloting an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, that is equipped with a gimbal-mounted camera capable of producing 4K video. From his iPad, he has a bird’s-eye view.
“See how I can tilt that down?” he asks, gesturing skyward at the rotating camera. “So I can do that during flight and using a specialized software I can stitch them together. And if I have like 100 acres or 200 acres, I can make it in one big picture.
“So it looks like you’re looking at a satellite feed.”
The view is great, he said, but there are more applications than just a hobbyist’s photography kick. UAVs, or drones as they’re more commonly known, have advanced rapidly in recent years, allowing multiple sectors of business to harness their eye-in-the-sky view. Originally developed for military purposes — the first UAVs were bomb-dropping balloons — unmanned aircraft have evolved into high-tech surveillance weapons besides consumer toys that cost less than a trip to the grocery store.
But today, UAVs are used by scientists, firefighters and real-estate agents. Tech giant Amazon is exploring using drone technology in its delivery service. NASA, meanwhile, is using unmanned aircraft to hunt down storms.
The technology is particularly ripe for agriculture, where the range and scope of the machines dovetail with the massive tracts of land often involved with farming.
Just a few miles away from Lester’s demonstration, for instance, sits Harner Farm, one of the about 1,200 farms in Centre County. Last summer, Lester, a junior studying mechanical engineering at Penn State, posted a video of his flyover of the farm, allowing owner Dan Harner to see his orchard in full, panoramic bloom.
“The one that he did of our place was really kind of neat,” Harner said, “because it did show where we’re missing trees, and I think it would be worthwhile in that regard for an operation like ours.”
Harner Farm, which sits on a verdant elbow of Whitehall Road and West College Avenue, downsized in June, Harner said, so the uses for UAVs there might not be as effective.
But at a larger farm, he added, UAVs could bear fruit.
“Our operation is relatively small here,” he said. “We can kind of see what’s going on here, but if you have a 500-acre orchard, you can see where you’re missing trees and where you might have problems with fire blight or something like that.
“But with a drone you can zero right in on it and take corrective action if you have to.”
Taking ‘baby steps’ in a growing market
Previously, however, the commercial use of UAVs was restricted without a special exemption or pilot’s license. That will change on Monday when the first operational rules for commercially piloting unmanned aircraft go into effect.
In June, the Federal Aviation Administration announced the new regulations, which, among other purposes, will allow operators such as Lester to profit from their work with UAVs.
“This will allow more people to get into the business” said Lester, who is taking the required test to pilot for profit. “I want to get (DJI’s) higher model, but first I need to make some money.”
The FAA reported the new regulations could result in more than an $82 billion surge for the U.S. economy, according to industry estimates, and create more than 100,000 jobs during the next decade.
Joe Sommer, a professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State, said the Midwest, with its sprawling corn and soybean fields, has already harnessed the technology to great effect.
“There are a lot of farmers who will pay someone to fly over their huge 1,000-acre field and bring them images back to help them make decisions,” he said. “Particularly, soybeans get weeds in them and if the weeds get too big, they choke the combines in the fall.”
The possibilities extend beyond a season’s harvest. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have been designing their own drones, putting them to use in fighting invasive species of plants that increase the risk of wildfires. Called “prescribed burning,” the drones ignite the unwanted plants by dropping balls that, through a chemical reaction, flare up minutes later.
Fighting fire with fire is just one way the industry is improvising with UAVs. Sommer, who has presented across Pennsylvania about the technology’s agricultural potential, said UAVs could be used to scan for pests besides scouting crop loads.
The economic effect of pests and disease can be devastating. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture, the total cost of invasive species amounts to about $120 billion per year. In combating blight, a type of bacterial infection that can wreak havoc on orchards, costs can exceed $100 million annually, a University of Illinois study reported.
Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is flying in the Midwest’s tailwind regarding drone technology. Some of the catch-up is logistical: While agriculture accounts for more than $7 billion of the state’s economy, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, Pennsylvania has smaller fields and more forested areas, places where the effect of unmanned aircraft is mitigated.
“We’re just taking baby steps right now,” Sommer said, “both at the university and pretty much at the state of Pennsylvania.”
Instead, Sommer, who heads a university group dedicated to studying UAVs’ use in agriculture, said the state can focus on two areas of strength: orchards, like at Harner Farm, and turfgrass.
“We’re great in that,” he said. “And there are golf courses all over the country where there hasn’t been a lot of work done. And the big, fixed-wing aircraft used in the Midwest won’t be as good for golf courses.”
Blue skies ahead
After Monday, Lester plans to grow his own UAV business. From his YouTube videos, he’s received calls from local real-estate and construction groups on consulting projects. At last year’s Ag Progress Days, Lester helped Sommer demonstrate safety practices for farmers in using the technology.
Sommer found out about Lester like the about 25,000 others who had watched his video taken from above Penn State’s campus.
“Some guys had asked me ‘have you seen what this kid is doing?’ ” he said. “ ‘You have to check it out.’ ”
Lester is hoping others feel the same. And with the about 165,000 acres of farmland in Centre County, agronomy may be a market with growing interest: More than $90 million in the county was generated from agricultural products, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.
“It kind of gives you an early indication of what’s going on,” Harner said of the technology.
The sooner his business takes flight, Lester said, the better. His Phantom cost about $1,000; a newer model can set him back a few hundred dollars more.
More pressing are his upcoming payments for classes. With a couple years left before graduation, he’s hoping to stave off loans as much as possible.
“Luckily I’m not doing that yet,” he said. “I’ve got the first installment paid for, but I don’t know what I’m going to do for the second two. Hopefully over the next two months, I can make enough to pay for the next installment.”
With the FAA’s new rules and his burgeoning company, he’s hoping the sky is far from the limit, he said.
“Yeah, I’m hoping to pay for college,” he said, laughing. “College is not cheap.”