Just as no-till practices have helped you farm with less labor and equipment costs, another tool is emerging that could help you drive down costs and boost efficiency even further.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently rolled out landmark rules for the use of small commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — or drones — that should remove most of the uncertainties about what farmers can or can’t do.

When used properly, drones have the potential to help no-tillers scout crops and livestock and capture imagery for a wide array of precision management decisions — including variable-rate, in-season fertilization applications, weed identification, livestock inventory and identifying sick animals, says John Nowatzki, agricultural machine systems specialist at North Dakota State University Extension.

In summary, the FAA’s rules allow commercial drones weighing up to 55 pounds to fly during daylight hours and lower than 400 feet in the air, or higher if within 400 feet of a taller building or tower. Operators must pass an aeronautics test every 24 months for a certificate and a background check by the Transportation Security Administration.

A process for interested parties to obtain FAA certification will be rolled out next, the agency says.

Farmers should expect to see chemical and seed sales companies, agronomists and other ag-related business react to this news by offering imaging services with drones, says Rory Paul, who founded St. Louis-based Volt Aerial Robotics and has been following the development of this technology in the U.S. for several years.

While this might allow third parties to bring some insightful new analytics to the farm, Paul warns that the market isn’t mature yet and there’s a chance these businesses could get into the UAV business and be out a short time later.

He believes companies like SST and Monsanto’s Climate Corp. will be expanding into imaging services with large aircraft or satellite using their existing customer pipeline and make it very tough for small UAV operators to compete, especially since they already have customer pipelines to work with.

“There’s been some recent research done that suggests companies using UAVs to do data acquisition aren’t making money, and companies providing data by satellite are making money,” he says. “Simply put, you can’t cover enough ground in a season using a small UAV to compete with large aircraft or satellite, and also provision it to your end user.

“I know how much it costs to actually get a technician in a truck with one of these units, let them drive for 4 hours, go and do 25 minutes worth of work and drive 4 hours home.”

It may make more sense, Paul agrees, for no-tillers interested in this technology to spend the $1,000-$2,000 needed to buy decent equipment, train themselves and use it to their own best purpose on the farm — whether it’s for crop scouting, monitoring livestock movement or checking irrigation pivots. Equipment will only get cheaper and more sophisticated as time goes on, he notes.

“Literally within10 minutes standing at the side of a field you can fly up with a drone, view whether a pivot or nozzle is working and it’s done,” Paul says.