We’ve heard of the benefits of drones in ag: speeding up crop scouting, identifying pest or nutrient issues in crops and addressing them right away, checking for weather damage, finding pivot breakdowns on irrigation systems, checking drainage system performance – the list goes on. (Search “Take to the sky” on FarmIndustryNews.com to read the original article from 2013 on the details of drone technology and benefits of use.) But how do these things help growers justify the cost of purchasing a drone in the first place?
This RBG photo of corn field in central Illinois from last month can tell a big story to a grower who knows his or her fields, and it’s a way to take action in season when deficiencies can be located and fixed right away. Photo: Chad Colby
While this is one specific example, and the types of drones available and the field conditions in which they operate vary widely, it’s a solid case showing how drone usage can pay off.
Colby spoke at this year’s InfoAg precision ag conference last month in St. Louis to a packed room of growers and precision ag professionals and one of his key messages was that you do not have to spend a lot of money to get a useful UAS package.
“You don’t need to spend big money to get a great ship for ag use. You can spend $1000 to $2000 depending on extras, additional batteries, a case, etc. And they are reliable. If operated correctly these ships are very good tools that work very well,” he says. Compared to what’s spent on some other farm inputs, that’s pretty cheap. And the type of imagery you get out of a system – like basic RBG photos – can tell you a lot about your fields. Colby notes that a 4th generation farmer is going to know what he or she sees when shown an image of a field with noticeable yellow strips showing a deficiency in their corn. NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) imagery takes it a step further by indicating density but may require working with a service provider to get real meaning out of the process.
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What you can do with a drone right now
Let’s face it: Drones represent some very innovative technology; it’s neat to see farming from a different perspective; and they’re also simply fun to fly.
“I’ve been known to get sunburnt tonsils from a day of watching them in the sky,” said Kevin Price, Executive VP of Research and technology development, AgPixel/RoboFlight Systems, at his drone session at InfoAg.
Viewing your equipment from an aerial angle and sharing photos and footage on social media are some of the ways growers have used drones to tell the story of agriculture. Photo: Chad Colby
Plenty of farmers are flying drones for recreation on their farms right now. The drone sessions at InfoAg were packed to the brim with attendees, and lots of people shot their hands up when asked if they were operating a drone on their farms now.
Many are capturing aerial footage during planting, harvest and more, and sharing that on YouTube and other social media channels. (Search “YouTube drones” on FarmIndustryNews.com for a roundup of those called “Viewing farming from a new angle for 2014.”) Colby notes that this alone – farmers sharing recreational drone footage on social media – is in itself a great way for growers to share the story of agriculture with a broad audience.
But if you have one or plan to get one soon, you have to know the rules. If flying recreationally, adhere to the rules established like keeping your aircraft within visual line of site, flying no higher than 400 feet and avoiding adverse weather conditions. Visit http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/for-recreational-users for a full list and consider joining an organization like the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which promotes safe flying of small aircraft.
Flying commercially is a different story and right now requires a Section 333 exemption from FAA.
Peggy Hall, assistant professor, field specialist, agricultural & resource law, said using your sUAS to check on your crops for scouting and identifying problems – that’s a business purpose, in a recent sUAS webinar hosted by the National Ag Law Center.
FAA has issued nearly 1,000 333 exemptions so far, and until they release the official rules of operation for sUAS for commercial purposes next year, flying one for business, and making money off of it in any way, requires that exemption.
The future looks bright for drone use in agriculture, but giving the technology a try for fun right now is also a reality. And the conversation doesn’t end here: Visit farmindustrynews.com for even more coverage, an interactive quiz to test your drone knowledge, galleries, blogs and more around the topic.
Know Before you Fly
Ag Tech Talk
(There is also a comprehensive list of drone manufacturers here)
FAA 333 exemptions
Academy of Model Aeronautics
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International