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Drones Poised to Elevate Agricultural Efficiency

posted on October 31, 2014


University of Minnesota researchers are using drones to survey the agricultural landscape in more than a dozen counties.

The unmanned aerial vehicles are being deployed to scour the crops for soybean aphids that wreak havoc on the oilseeds.

By using drones in the fight to eradicate pests, the university hopes to advance the new technology, which currently is limited to noncommercial operation.

The FAA had initially planned to allow commercial drone use by 2015, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely. Nevertheless, some producers aren’t waiting for the government to clear the runway for a technology that some say is a game-changer. Josh Buettner explains.

To the untrained eye, the sight of a UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle, soaring over the rural landscape might seem like an amateur activity.  But the machines soon could become a key weapon in a robust agricultural arsenal.

Chad Colby/Product Support/360 Yield Center: "The nice part is the two of these work really close together.  So if you have any issues with anything, you’re in constant contact with the ship.”

If early adopters are able to chart the course, someday drones could be as common on farms as tractors.   And with cheap technology blossoming, some tech-savvy producers are already attempting to hack their fields.   

Chad Colby/Product Support/360 Yield Center: "It's just another thing to give that grower control.  And that's really what it's all about.  It's what everybody wants."

As technological innovations flood the market, the cost of their hi-tech components - also found in drones – are driven down by economies of scale.  And affordability could offer significant opportunities in the wild blue yonder.  A 2013 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems reveals the UAV industry will add over 100,000 jobs and $82 billion to the U.S. economy over the next decade. 

Rick Reed/Executive Director/Illinois Agricultural Aviation Association: "I have no understanding of where they come up with those numbers."

While the exact figures are disputed by some, few expect the steady rise of autonomous vehicles to subside.  However, adding a new skill set to the farm is rarely an out-of-the-box solution.

Rick Reed/Executive Director/Illinois Agricultural Aviation Association: "I’ve had farmer customers say: ‘Well I can go on Amazon and I can buy one of these for $100 and put a camera on it and I’m in business.’  Well, no."

And while a budding industry spreads its wings, there are complications which prevent it from moving forward on the right side of the law. 

Chad Colby/Product Support/360 Yield Center: "The ships have come a long way.  They fly longer.  They’re safer.  But we’re waiting for the FAA.”

The Federal Aviation Administration, which holds ultimate jurisdiction over the use of drones, was ordered by Congress in 2012 to formulate rules integrating UAVs into the national airspace.  But the FAA has warned it will likely miss a self-imposed 2015 deadline - citing safety concerns for traditional aircraft. 

Currently, the majority of drone flights in the U.S. are conducted by "hobbyists", over private property, below 400 feet.  Commercial operation technically is illegal, but progress is being made.  Exemptions have let some companies, largely in the entertainment industry, lift off.

The government also has established test sites tied to six states, each focused on a different UAV specialty.  In upstate New York, for example, drones are evaluating methods to scout farm fields using several types of sensors.

It takes time to gather and evaluate the data.  But armed with a vision of increased yields, decreased runoff, and the ability to feed the world on existing acreage, some farmers are already embracing the ‘high life’.

Chad Colby/Product Support/360 Yield Center: "It’s a different approach.  We like to call it a systems approach."

Illinois-based 360 Yield Center is looking for ways to maximize every grain of potential on farms.  As UAVs buzz over commodity crops capturing multispectral images with modified cameras, computers on the ground digitally stitch the images into an agronomic tapestry. And the different infrared wavelengths offer crucial information about plant health. 

Randy Aberle/Gibson City, Illinois:"It’s when you go to the NDVI-enhanced photo that now you can start to pick out the differences of what’s going on there."

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index or NDVI imagery allows producers to make timely, corrective, cost-saving prescriptions regarding nitrogen, pesticides, herbicides and water application at any time of the growing season.

Chad Colby/Product Support/360 Yield Center: "Today is the best yielding corn that this farm has ever raised, ever.  And I mean ever.  And it's due to a lot of great management. And we put in a sub-drip irrigation system that has taken this farm to places it’s never been before."

While drones of diverse pedigrees and varying capabilities wait to be cleared for takeoff, it is the culmination of several innovative applications that may elevate precision agriculture to new heights. 

During the growing season, strategies are developed through thermal readouts and on-the-spot soil analysis in hopes of record production.

Jason Kienast/Agronomist/360 Yield Center: "I would classify this as a very efficient system."

By working both sides of the equation, with robots in the air and irrigation below ground, agronomists can funnel crucial resources to where they are needed most.

Jason Kienast/Agronomist/360 Yield Center: "We’re using drones and soil scans and different things to sense what’s out there.  And then we come back and utilize this tool.  Because this is always underground, we can apply at any time.  We don’t have to throw it on before the crop, because we’re putting it in that root zone.”

Chad Colby/Product Support/360 Yield Center: "I think it’s important that everybody in the room understands – I don’t sell ships, never sold ships.  You cannot hire me to fly.  No one has ever done that.  You can hire me to speak, ok, several people.  But what I talk to you about is what you can do with this technology.  So let’s dive right into this."

With a background in aviation and farming, Chad Colby is a tireless promoter of drone use in the realm of agriculture.

Chad Colby/Product Support/360 Yield Center: "Do you know right now, out west, people are putting thermal cameras on this and flying over their livestock and determining whether any of their livestock has an illness right now?  Has a fever?  I mean that’s what’s happening right now.  It exists.  It’s not super expensive either."

Many in the ag sector are eagerly waiting for an opportunity to profit from UAV flights.  But advocates for agricultural aviators, particularly those who roll, twist and turn at low altitudes, are skeptical of the economic forecast for unmanned systems.  The very nature of their work could put them in close proximity, so crop dusters are following the issue of drone assimilation intently.

Rick Reed/Executive Director/Illinois Agricultural Aviation Association: "There is a tremendous amount of misinformation out there. Those numbers are blown out of proportion if you look.  Those are the people who manufacture these, and sell them and provide a service.  And of course they’re foaming at the mouth because there is a lot of money out there to be made here.”

Ahead of comprehensive FAA rules, UAV’s will undoubtedly continue their progressive march. And for some on the bleeding edge, patience is a virtue.

Chad Colby/Product Support/360 Yield Center: "I think at the end of the day, it’s like everything else.  You can fly this equipment half way and do a half way job.  Or you can fly it with the responsibility that goes with it."

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner


Tags: drone FAA Federal Aviation Administration Precision Agriculture UAV unmanned systems