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Are drones poised to have a huge impact on Alabama’s economy?

An operator guides a remotely-operated UAV at a vineyard in California (Photo: PBS)
An operator guides a remotely-operated UAV at a vineyard in California (Photo: YouTube)

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Friday announced the creation of the Alabama Drone Task Force. The task force was created to review the necessary requirements to further Alabama’s potential use of drones in the areas of agriculture, conservation and law enforcement.

The Governor requested task force members accomplish the following:

  1. Study the requirements for drone operations in Alabama, and the process for FAA approval;
  2. Apply for necessary FAA waivers for drone use in Alabama airspace;
  3. Meet with stakeholders to discuss plans for drone use;
  4. Recommend a statewide plan for drone use in Alabama

The implications for Alabama agriculture — the state’s largest industry — are huge.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have the potential to help farmers better manage crops and livestock,” said Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell. “We appreciate the governor’s proactive efforts to explore how we can best use this technology while protecting private property rights.”

Creation of the task force follows a June announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) effectively grounding drones for commercial use. The task force is chaired by Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries John McMillan and includes Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Director Gunter Guy, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier and Montgomery Airport Authority Board Member Jimmy Reynolds.

In a release, Bentley said, “I believe drone use can benefit the state now and for generations to come, because drones offer many advantages to help our farmers and law enforcement agencies be successful.”

Agricultural researchers have worked with Alabama farmers to demonstrate how drones can be paired with video cameras and sophisticated mapping software to provide producers better information about irrigation, soil conditions, plant health, animal care and pest management.

“The thing about a UAV is that it gives you a whole new perspective when we talk about agriculture,” said John Fulton, former Alabama Farmers Federation professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering at Auburn University. “There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to collect data or images, check cows or go out after a rain to see where water is standing.”

But in addition to UAV’s potential impact on Alabama’s massive agriculture industry, the state has a unique opportunity to position itself at the forefront of the inevitable evolution in the way drones impact our everyday lives.

Marc Andreessen isn’t a household name, but he has probably done as much as anybody to change the way we communicate and use technology.

He invented Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, which Wired notes was “an innovation that is perhaps more responsible than any other for popularizing the Internet and bringing it into hundreds of millions of homes.” He is now a venture capitalist who has backed companies many of us use regularly — like Twitter, Skype, Groupon and Instagram.

He’s also betting big on drones.

Last year, Andreessen’s venture capital firm led a $10.7 million financing round for Airware, a company that doesn’t build drones, but, according to Forbes, “provides a platform for companies developing them. That platform includes hardware, software and an API. Hardware includes sensors, GPS and radio technology.”

In June, Andreessen penned an op-ed for Politico Magazine discussing how to build innovation clusters around the country.

“Policymakers shouldn’t be trying to copy Silicon Valley,” Andreessen wrote. “Instead, they should be figuring out what domain is (or could be) specific to their region—and then removing the regulatory hurdles for that particular domain… There are many new categories of innovation out there and entrepreneurs eager to go after opportunities within each of them. Rethinking the regulatory barriers in specific industries would better draw the startups, researchers and divisions of big companies that want to innovate in the vanguard of a particular domain—while also exploring and addressing many of the difficult regulatory issues along the way.”

There are serious and legitimate privacy concerns with UAVs. Gov. Bentley’s drone task force will have to weigh those concerns soberly and carefully.

However, with Alabama’s business climate already attracting companies from around the globe, drones offer the state another opportunity to attract innovation and jobs — and that’s on top of providing a boost to Alabama’s well-established agricultural sector.

“If we think of airspace as the next Internet-like platform, lifting restrictions on drones is one way to give other regions a chance to become the next significant locus of innovation,” said Andreessen.

Alabama’s Drone Task Force should keep that in mind as they meet for the first time this Friday. The statewide drone management plan is due to the Governor before January 15, 2015.

Follow Cliff on Twitter @Cliff_Sims

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