Bird's-eye view: Farmers see drones in their future

Technology could improve farm productivity

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DUBUQUE — Unmanned aerial vehicles, famous for delivering lethal strikes on terrorists, have yet to live up to their considerable promise for improving farm productivity.

“They have the potential to gather and process an unprecedented amount of data, but that data must be actionable — it must provide information that guides farmers to specific actions that increase yields,” said John Deere robotics manager Stewart Moorehead, the keynote speaker at a recent conference in Dubuque titled Unmanned Systems and Agriculture.

Although the industry is in its infancy and hobbled by the lack of specific government regulations, it has a bright future, according to Moorehead and other speakers at the March 4 conference in Dubuque.

Drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles or systems, as their adherents prefer to call them — are ideally suited for scouting crop fields during the growing season, covering hundreds of acres in the time a human observer could walk but a few.

“You can also see patterns from the air that you can't see from the ground,” said Brad Buchanan, owner of Cedar Rapids-based Crop Tech Services, which started using drones last year to supplement its traditional crop-scouting services.

In addition to standard images and video, cameras can capture enhanced images — infrared, thermal and NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) — that provide insights into soil conditions and plant health.

“Right now, as the proposed rules stand, the use of drones is very limited beyond capturing images,” said Chris Draper, director of EMERGE, an entrepreneurial development initiative at Simpson College in Indianola.

The 55-pound weight limit, which precludes most chemical applications, and the requirement that operators keep the drones in sight are among the chief limitations, said Draper, a former employee of the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that regulates drones.

Once the rules have been well established, drones will play an expanded role in agriculture, he said. But until the FAA issues formal rules governing commercial drone use — which many expect later this year — commercial operators are required to secure a Section 333 exemption.

Of 43 FAA exemptions granted as of March 10:

• 16 have been to businesses engaged in aerial filming — primarily for movies and television

• 10 have been to companies conducting aerial inspections of roofs, utility lines, flame stacks and bridges

• 6 have been to aerial photographers working primarily for real estate agencies.

Although some analysts predict that farm applications eventually will make up 80 percent of commercial drone usage, only eight exemptions have been granted to businesses engaged in precision agriculture and ag-related analysis of aerial images, including Pravia LLC, whose managing partner, Tim Ray, spoke at the Dubuque conference.

Ray said the exemption limits speed to 39 knots and altitude to 400 feet. Operators may not fly within five miles of an airport and must be able to see the drone at all times, he said.

“It's not going to be the end-all. It's just another tool to help us get the job done more efficiently, more effectively,” said Buchanan, whose Cedar Rapids company has been engaged in crop scouting for 30 years.

Aerial images, he said, can help pinpoint storm damage, chemical misapplications, areas of poor drainage and areas with uncontrolled weeds.

From last year's experience, Buchanan cited as examples portions of interior fields damaged by wind storms and both the under- and over-application of fertilizer caused by equipment and operator malfunctions.

Although the company has not applied for a Section 333 exemption, it is able to fly drones under a cooperative arrangement with Kirkwood Community College's precision ag program, which has been granted a research license, he said.

“It's like any technology — the more you use it, the more it develops and the more uses you find for it,” he said.

James Jordan, an instructor in Kirkwood's agricultural geospatial technology program, said the emphasis is not on teaching students how to operate drones but on using the data they collect.

“This is the next hot-ticket item in agriculture, so we need to prepare students to use the data,” he said.

Kirkwood operates a lightweight, fixed-wing drone under an FAA data collection authorization, he said.

In addition to standard photos and video, the Kirkwood drone can capture infrared images that disclose insights into the health of plants, he said.

“NDVI photography, which differentiates between healthy and unhealthy vegetation, can help farmers make better decisions,” said Brent Johnson, proprietor of Labre Crop Consultants in western Iowa.

“Healthy plants reflect more infrared light, which enables farmers to identify areas of strong plant health and low plant health,” said Johnson, whose company is based in Manson.

That information can help farmers anticipate yields and insurance claims, he said.

“Knowing the size of your crop by the first of August enables you to make more-informed marketing decisions and plan harvest logistics,” Johnson said.

Thermal imagery can provide data — such as soil compaction, wet soil, tile lines, vegetation types and warm, dry soil — that can help farmers correct problem areas, according to Johnson.

Many farmers have long been gathering data from their planters and from the yield monitors in their combines. Drones enable farmers to determine how their crops are doing in midlife cycle between planting and harvest, Johnson said.

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