"From the viewpoint of agriculture, we are looking at this as a way to improve the productivity and ultimately reduce the need for a lot of crop inputs. This type of vehicle allows you to do treatment and inspection of agricultural fields on a very focused basis," Giles said.
For example, he said, if there is a small area within a vineyard that needs a treatment for pests or something similar, unmanned aircraft can do it very efficiently.
"Hillside slopes are actually hazardous for operators of ground rigs, so when you look at spray operations, the unmanned aircraft brings us a new vehicle with which to do that," he said.
Specific protocol for operation of unmanned aircraft could be adopted by the FAA as early as September 2015. At that point, Giles speculated that some large growers may decide they want their own vehicle, while at the same time there may be pest control applicators that go into the business, buy the equipment and then provide the service to growers.
"It is reasonable to think that there might be existing aerial application businesses that expand into these pieces of equipment. It is part of their market and could be a reasonable step that integrates in with an existing aerial applicator business," he said.
A Davis-based startup company—Airphrame—created by three Stanford University master's program graduates, said it is making inroads in the remote-controlled aircraft business by developing low-cost, unmanned planes for commercial markets, with a heavy emphasis on agricultural applications.
"Most of the public perception of drones is that they are used as war machines. We decided to come up with another application," said Bret Kugelmass, an Airphrame founder. "We kept exploring different applications and agriculture kept coming up as a huge opportunity."
The company does not sell the aircraft. Instead, it offers its services to agricultural customers who want to check on a variety of aspects of their farms, including crop development, pest and disease problems, and irrigation monitoring.
"We have developed small electric-powered drones. They are about 48 inches wide and weigh only a few pounds. They can stay in the air for a long time and they can cover a large surface area. In a single flight, one of our drones can cover about 300 acres, which means we can collect a great deal of high-resolution digital imagery in a single flight," Kugelmass said.
Agricultural research on uses of unmanned aircraft is becoming more prevalent throughout the United States. At Michigan State University, for example, professor Norbert Mueller is researching how they can be used for various agricultural activities, including surveying fields; crop health and watering; bringing out pesticides and fertilizers or other beneficial substances; and herding or searching for animals.
Recently, remote-controlled aircraft have been receiving public scrutiny because of their growing use for military, intelligence and law-enforcement purposes.
"I share those reservations and agree that we need to be very careful about how we use unmanned aircraft," Giles said. "But with the color, size and noise of a motorcycle, this helicopter that we're testing is anything but stealthy and would be a great disappointment to anyone hoping to use it for espionage or other covert purposes."