Logan Bitz of South Country Equipment, which sells agriculture equipment, prepares to launch a PrecisionHawk drone.  (Courtesy PrecisionHawk)

Commercial drone flight could be legal in as soon as a year, and agriculture appears likely to be first to see the most significant impact. It’s a lot simpler and safer to fly a drone over a soybean field than to deliver a package in a crowded city.

But for farmers questions remain over when and where flying drones is of value. The drone services company Measure is doing tests over cornfields in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday in partnership with PrecisionHawk and the American Farm Bureau, as it looks to provide answers. Measure plans to release a report of its findings later this year. It will also develop an online tool — a return-on-investment calculator — to help farmers understand if drones make sense for them.

“There are cases where it may not make sense,” said Measure president Justin Oberman. “So everybody needs to put a toe in the water and say let’s do some analysis and figure out if we really ought to use this tool.”

[7 insights from the FAA’s former leader on drones]

The American Farm Bureau wants to quantify what sort of return farmers can expect when using drones.

“Generally we’re convinced that it’s a technology that has a great deal of promise. It seems almost axiomatic that it will be successful,” said Will Rodger, the American Farm Bureau’s director of policy communications. “The question is when and where is this going to be something that farmers should use.”

Measure is testing with equipment from PrecisionHawk, which provides drones and data analysis for farmers.

“Every day we see there’s a lot of misinformation out there. It’s been very hard for farmers to conceptualize savings and an increase in their production from UAV technology,” said PrecisionHawk communications director Lia Reich. “We really wanted to help give a deep dive into understanding that return that farmers have for a UAV investment that a lot of farmers see as a large investment at this point.”

[Drone operators assist search and rescue efforts after devastating floods in Texas]

Reich said that PrecisionHawk believes its services can minimize the inputs a farmer has to use — such as fertilizer and pesticides — by as much as 20 percent. While PrecisionHawk isn’t talking yet about farmers who have used its services, she said it believes crop output can be improved by up to 20 percent as well.

The potential of drones is for farmers to monitor their crops in real-time and provide more nuanced treatments. For example, a drone might reveal that a small section of a field is stressed, and that patch could exclusively receive additional watering or nutrients. Aerial photography and videos form a drone are significantly cheaper than using a plane, helicopter or satellite.

“It’s hard to come up with a lot that’s being done now with satellites or planes that you couldn’t just do easily with drones. That in a lot of ways is the thing that makes it sexy,” Rodgers said. “It’s not quite the PC of precision ag, but it appears to be definitely lower cost and definitely easier to deploy and quicker to deploy.”