(Photo: Joclyn Bushman/Iowa Soybean Association)

Prying eyes overhead

July 7, 2022 | Jeff Hutton

There may be more than birds flying over Iowa’s farm fields.

Law enforcement officials are encouraging farmers, retailers and those in the food and ag sector to keep their eyes to the skies as farms and agricultural properties are being targeted by thieves using drones.

Patrick Waymire, assistant director for the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) Division of Intelligence and Fusion Center, says the DPS received a report from another law enforcement agency that drones have been used in another state to survey rural areas to identify locations where items of value were stored.

Officials with the FBI’s Office of the Private Sector say ag equipment, ATVs, unsecured tools and other items are being stolen with help from aerial technology.

The FBI cited recent examples in Washington state where suspects, sitting on hilltops at night in rural agricultural areas, were using backpack-sized drones to search for unsecured items and sheds that contained expensive tools and equipment.

In one instance, two people were arrested in 2021 and charged with grand theft, trespassing and burglary for the theft of more than $100,000 in tools, farm equipment and other property from several rural locations. The individuals had used drones to scout and locate properties in rural areas with less risk, according to the FBI.

Waymire says the DPS “realizes drones could be used in Iowa for similar criminal activity” and wanted to share the information with local law enforcement and ag partners.

Vigilance is key

Marshall County Chief Deputy Sheriff Ben Veren says farmers and anyone living in rural parts of the state should be on alert.

“Fortunately, we have not experienced this issue in our area, but it does go to show that criminals are adapting their ways and utilizing technology in criminal activity,” he says.

“The Marshall County Sheriff’s Office always encourages citizens to keep an eye out for suspicious activity and if they see something, to promptly report it to local law enforcement. Especially important in the less-populated rural areas is having those established relationship with neighbors that helps keep extra eyes on the lookout in their area.”

Veren says being proactive is a good idea for all farmers and rural ag retailers.

“As with property crimes everywhere, we encourage farmers to keep valuable items out of sight and locked up whenever possible. Keeping an itemized list of tools and equipment, including descriptions and serial numbers, is important if a theft occurs. Unique markings or engraving of tools or equipment can also deter theft or allow for identification and return if recovered.”

Like Marshall County, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) has not seen or heard of any reports of criminal activity involving drones.

But PCSO Lt. Ryan Evans agreed vigilance and preparedness are paramount in either preventing criminal acts or helping authorities apprehend those who perpetuate these crimes.

“Obviously, if you see something suspicious like unknown drones flying above your property, contact law enforcement right away,” he says.

Evans also echoed Veren’s advice that farmers, ag retailers and rural residents should always keep valuables and equipment secured, including tools and farm vehicles.

“Don’t leave your keys in the tractor,” he says.

Indicators of illicit activity

While many farmers use drone technology to collect and analyze data related to livestock and crops, it is imperative to report unfamiliar sightings of drones or suspicious activity to local law enforcement, officials say.

Indicators of possible criminal activity might include the following:

  • Unknown vehicles parked outside of rural property boundaries.
  • Unknown individuals lurking near property boundaries and fences, or other known launch points while operating drones.
  • Aural or visual evidence of unknown or unauthorized drones flying over one’s property.
  • Increased reports of unknown individuals in rural areas operating drones near property lines.
  • Discarded, damaged or lost drones, without an FAA required identification number, on your property.

Officials also suggested other ways to mitigate illegal drone activity and protect property including:

  • Learn state regulations and laws concerning drone activity.
  • Determine whether the property is covered by or adjacent to existing flight restrictions.
  • Utilize “No Drone Zone” signage.

While the news is troubling, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig says ag producers can do their part if something doesn’t seem right.

“Iowa farmers and rural residents should continue to be vigilant about their properties, equipment and livestock as criminals are finding new ways to use technology to scout for unsecured possessions to steal,” he says.

“If you see suspicious activities, including unauthorized drone usage, make sure to report the information as soon as possible to local law enforcement.”