Drone Flying and Grain Marketing: 5 Rules for the Risky – DTN

Well, folks, I’m back in the drone-owning community! Many readers will remember that I lost my first little unmanned aerial system (UAS) in an ocean of prairie grass when a sudden wind shear took it outside of signaling range. I know that people remember this, because people still ask me about it all the time: “Have you found your drone yet? Ha, ha!”   

Eventually, I did find bits and pieces that had been trampled by cattle, but oh well. I’ve got an even better one now — better video and photo resolution, better handling, and best of all — a “return to home” function if it loses signal.

Since August 2016, Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations has allowed UAS operators to apply for a “Remote Pilot Certificate with a small UAS Rating.” This certificate finally allows Americans to legally operate UAS in controlled airspace for commercial purposes, subject to a number of very reasonable constraints. As I understand it, a “commercial purpose” can be interpreted as any intent to further a business — including agriculture. So before I went out to take some aerial photos of rented farmland, I went to the local airport to take a written test and get on the right side of the law.

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Several years ago I took flying lessons and passed the test for a real-deal private pilot’s license (for manned aircraft), so fortunately I already knew most of the material for the remote pilot test. But anyone without a pre-existing base of aeronautical knowledge will find it to be a bizarrely in-depth exam. There’s some stuff that UAS operators should definitely learn in order to share the sky well with other aircraft, such as airspace classifications and how to read sectional charts, but there’s also a lot of stuff that seems more applicable to flying B-52 bombing missions with a crew of five officers, rather than controlling a flying camera with your thumbs.

The “Risk Management” section of the test prep material seems more applicable to grain marketing than to drone flying. For instance, the study guide defines “hazards” as “present events, objects, or circumstances that could contribute to an undesired future event.” It seems to me that grain marketing could also adopt that definition. Both grain marketing and flying share a constant need to scan for hazards, analyze what you can do about them, execute that plan, and monitor those results.

The study guide includes some truly vintage military/government/bureaucratic acronyms and checklists that attempt to make the advice “don’t be an idiot” sound more official. There was one checklist I thought grain marketers might find interesting — the Five Hazardous Attitudes that can make a pilot himself (or a farmer) his own biggest hazard. Here they are, followed by the FAA-prescribed antidote for each. I added the farmer example to each item in the checklist. Repeat the antidote to yourself any time you identify with one of these attitudes:


1. Anti-authority: “Don’t tell me.”

People with this attitude may be resentful of having someone tell them what to do, or may regard rules, regulations, and procedures as silly or unnecessary. For example, a UAS pilot may fly near a busy airport without first getting clearance from Air Traffic Control. Or a farmer may use unapproved chemicals or seed traits and contaminate the supply chain.

The antidote: “Follow the rules. They are usually right.”

2. Impulsivity: “Do it quickly.”

People with this attitude don’t stop to think about what they are about to do. They don’t select the best alternative. They do the first thing that comes to mind. For example, a pilot may land on a runway without first checking for traffic and flying the pattern. Or a farm marketer may sell his grain to the first elevator that comes to mind without shopping around for the most competitive basis opportunity.

The antidote: “Not so fast. Think first.”

3. Invulnerability: “It won’t happen to me.”

People with the attitude falsely believe that accidents can happen to others, but never to them. For example, a pilot may skip the plane’s pre-flight inspection because usually, there’s nothing wrong. Or a farm marketer may ignore seasonal patterns because every once in a while, it works out.

The antidote: “It could happen to me.”

4. Macho: “I can do it.”

People with this type of attitude are always trying to prove they are better than anyone else, and they’ll try to prove themselves by taking risks in order to impress others. While this pattern is thought to be a male characteristic, women are equally susceptible. For example, a pilot may undertake a flight despite a dangerous weather forecast. Or a farm marketer may speculate in the grain markets and add to his long grain positions rather than hedging them.

The antidote: “Taking chances is foolish.”

5. Resignation: “What’s the use?”

People with this attitude don’t see themselves as being able to make a great deal of difference in what happens to them. When things go well, they see it as good luck. When things go badly, they may feel that someone is out to get them or attribute it to bad luck. For example, a pilot may not practice cross-wind landings because he thinks he’ll just mess them up anyway. Or a farm marketer may just sell everything at harvest at whatever price happens to be offered that day.

The antidote: “I’m not helpless. I can make a difference.”

I’m sure it’s because of my own hazardous anti-authoritarian attitude that I think memorizing this list to take a test to get certificated to fly a little drone seems a little strange. Nevertheless, there may be value in questioning our own attitudes if they’re contributing to undesired outcomes. Resignation, especially, may be prevalent among farm marketers. Yes, the markets seem inexplicable and uncontrollable much of the time, but repeat after me: “I’m not helpless. I can make a difference.” And truly, we can be pro-active with our marketing tools, like pre-harvest hedging at profitable levels, or innovative options writing strategies during periods of low volatility. There are things we can do.

This may be a relatively quiet time of year for farmer grain marketing — take a look at average corn basis levels that have strengthened 5 cents since the end of October — but don’t let that lull you into complacency. In market risk management, as in flying, there’s never a good time to be complacent. Hazards continue to lurk among the outside markets. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to read over the study materials, with their random acronyms and checklists and all, so that we are practiced up for when the exciting times come.

Elaine Kub is the author of “Mastering the Grain Markets: How Profits Are Really Made” and can be reached at elaine@masteringthegrainmarkets.com or on Twitter @elainekub.

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