Iowa Public Television


Drones Give an Elevated Perspective to Agriculture

posted on January 3, 2014

The Federal Aviation Administration is developing rules and regulations permitting commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, in the American airspace by 2015.

Drones are gaining in popularity, but the radio-controlled gadgets, currently, are prohibited from flying commercially. And safety and privacy concerns are complicating what was already an arduous task.

In other countries, the value of remote-controlled aircraft was realized a long time ago. Japanese farmers, for example, have used helicopter-style drones to crop dust rice fields. Today, unmanned aerial vehicles spray 40 percent of Japan’s rice crop.

But early adopters already envision widespread use of drones in American agriculture. And it seems the only thing higher than the innovators’ hopes, are the drones themselves. Josh Buettner explains.

Technological advancements have unleashed amazing inventions in recent years.  It’s doubtful any single device has made a bigger impact – or been more widely embraced -- than smartphones.  And with minimal modification, the components housed within many handheld devices are capable of controlling autonomous aircraft.  While critics advise a more cautionary “take it slow” approach, proponents say the convergence of communication, aviation and other scientific know-how is accelerating at breakneck pace. 

Chad Colby/Cross Implement, Inc.: “I make the comment all the time, this technology is advancing really by the week.”

 With increased affordability and convenience, several industries, including law enforcement, disaster assessment and even commercial delivery, are anticipating game-changing advantages via aerial drone technology.  And while the term “drones” may conjure up controversial images of war machines performing strikes with surgical precision overseas, their domestic application also is subject to intense scrutiny.

Chad Colby/Cross Implement, Inc.: “When you fly this piece of equipment and you make a mistake or do something not responsible, there’s going to be consequences.”

Farming may be better suited than most industries to realize immediate, beneficial results from an eye in the sky.  While most crop scouting still is conducted on the ground, an elevated perspective offers a significant increase in agricultural data. 

Bret Chilcott/Owner-AgEagle: “This is not a toy.  And it won’t be long until it will be rare for a farmer and agronomist not to have one of these at their disposal.”

Kirk Demuth/Kansas State University-Salina: “And as it’s flying I can easily just move it around...”

Advanced cameras mounted on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or U-A-Vs have been providing highly useful information to early adopters. Producers embracing precision agriculture, who already rely on GPS to guide tractors and apply chemicals, are rapidly adopting drones of various pedigrees.  With the farming community abuzz about the cost-savings these devices could yield, the future is looking up in rural America.   

Mark Blanks/Kansas State – Salina: “We’re seeing students get picked up as instructors or trainers and they’re all kind of waiting for that commercial market to open here in the U.S.”

Currently, profit-oriented drone flights are illegal, so widespread operation is grounded.  But some research institutions have been granted limited waivers as they seek incorporation of UAV programs into their curriculums. 

The Federal Aviation Administration is engaged in the arduous task of drafting a comprehensive set of rules that would integrate these flying gadgets into the national airspace by 2015.  

Chad Colby/Cross Implement, Inc.: “If we look up in the sky right now we can see there’s a private pilot out here...”

In the interim, universities and hobbyists can fly, but not above 400 feet.  And these discretionary flights generally take place over private property, with a landowner’s permission. 

Safety and privacy concerns are paramount to when the government formulates how to issue permits for commercial operation.

Legislation primarily aimed at minimizing police overreach has been introduced in a number of states. And while organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union claim that the use of drones within U.S. airspace could lead to a surveillance state, some industry experts don’t see an outlet for such data.

Mark Blanks/Kansas State – Salina: “Is it possible to have 24 hour surveillance over somebody and invade their privacy? Yes.  But it costs millions and billions of dollars and there’s not a market for that in the commercial world.”

According to a March 2013 report, The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International claims that drones will add over 100,000 jobs and $82 billion to the U.S. economy by 2025.    With 6 federal drone sites recently selected, “flyover country” offers the luxury of wide-open spaces to take UAV implementation to the next level.

Bret Chilcott/AgEagle: “The United States is not a leader in this technology right now but we soon will be if the FAA removes some of the stumbling blocks.” 

Drones of various shapes and sizes were on display this fall, as Kansas State University hosted a conference on Unmanned Aerial Systems.

Entrepreneurs and experts from across the nation descended on the Little Apple.  Home of a proud tradition in aviation, K-State and its affiliate institutions provided an opportunity for investors and enthusiasts alike to discuss the range of challenges and opportunities for the emerging industry.

Michael Toscano/President & CEO – Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International: “It’s a win-win scenario.”

With abundant enthusiasm for agricultural use, some agronomists claim drones could also be a plus for the environment.

Kevin Price/Agronomist - Kansas State University: “We can improve our ability to reduce the amount of runoff that goes into our lakes from our agriculture and we can improve the ability of getting nitrogen or nutrients in the places it is needed to increase the yield. So we’ll increase food, the amount of production we produce on the same amount of land even if we don’t increase the amount of land we’re planting on.”

 Savvy producers have already employed key pieces of new technology to their advantage. Townline Farms is able to make timely, cost-saving water management decisions by probing soil moisture levels of its irrigated ground in Central Illinois.  Adding Normalized Difference Vegetation index or NDVI imagery has provided an improved, nearly on-demand, glimpse into plant health at any time of the growing season.

Aaron Baer/Farm Manager - Townline Farms: “We were actually hiring an airplane to fly and it would get us one shot and it would be right before tassling, which in this area is mid- July to early July and we had one chance at it to get one shot a year.”

Chad Colby/Cross Implement, Inc.: “The airplane that flew and took this image without question was, I’d say, at least a $100,000 airplane that costs several hundred dollars an hour to fly.”  

With a background in farming and aviation, Chad Colby purchased his own quadcopter for less than $10,0000 and collaborates with growers in his area.  Colby is the Integrated Solutions Manager at Cross Implement in Minier, Illinois.  The John Deere dealership’s progressive clients eventually hope to use intelligence captured by UAVs to pinpoint underperforming areas on their farms.

Chad Colby/Cross Implement, Inc.: “I could fly the drone to that spot, take a photo of it and from the headlands of the field the grower could look at that data and then decide on an action.  Do I have a hybrid problem?  Do I have a weed issue?  Do I have insect infestation?  Do I have a water problem?  Hundreds of issues. And this is a huge tool for a grower.  Huge, huge tool for a grower...”

Matt Foes/Technical Agronomist DEKALB/Asgrow: “Spectral imaging lets you see the wavelengths that you don’t normally see.”

By shining a spotlight on specific challenges instead of casting a wide net, decisions from when to plant, to cutting back on costly chemicals and additives, can save farmers time and money.

Matt Foes/Technical Agronomist DEKALB/Asgrow: “We used to farm by the field.  As we go forward we farm by the acre.  Now we’re going to probably farm by ten square meters.  That will be kind of our size of our field and we’ll just have hundreds of little fields attached to one another that as the equipment goes through it will adjust based on that microenvironment.”

And as optical technology continues to march forward, the amount of data a farmer will be able to reap from a drone could increase exponentially.

Chad Colby/Cross Implement, Inc.: “Today we’re still putting the pieces of that puzzle together so they fit right.  I think in the future it will be more of a seamline process.  You’ll buy a drone especially designed for ag.  It will come in a box.  It will be all ready to go.  I think that is the stuff you’ll see.  And it’s tremendously exciting.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.

Tags: AgEagle AUVSI Chad Colby drone efficiency FAA Kansas Kansas State University Kansas State-Salina Kansas Unmanned Systems Manhattan NDVI Precision Agriculture quadcopter spectral imaging UAS UAV


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