Agriculture suited for drone use

Agriculture suited for drone use

Watch this report on the Market Day Report from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. EST. Watch this report on the Market Day Report from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. EST.

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.

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.

"I make the comment all the time, this technology is advancing really by the week," said Chad Colby, Integrated Solutions Manager at Cross Implement in Minier, Illinois.

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.

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.

"When you fly this piece of equipment and you make a mistake or do something not responsible, there's going to be consequences," said Colby.

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.

"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," said Bret Chilcott, who owns AgEAgle.

Advanced cameras mounted on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, 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.

"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.," said Mark Blanks with Kansas State University.

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.

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. 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.

"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," said Blanks.

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 six federal drone sites recently selected, "flyover country" offers the luxury of wide-open spaces to take UAV implementation to the next level.

"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," said Chilcott.

Drones of various shapes and sizes were on display this fall at a conference on unmanned aerial systems at Kansas State University.

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.

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

"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," said Kevin Price, an agronomist with Kansas State University.

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.

"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," said Townline Farms manager Aaron Baer.

"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," said Colby.

With a background in farming and aviation, Colby purchased his own quadcopter for less than $10,0000 and collaborates with growers in his area.

The John Deere dealership's progressive clients eventually hope to use intelligence captured by UAVs to pinpoint underperforming areas on their farms.

"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," Colby said.

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.

"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," said Matt Foes, technical agronomist for DEKALB/Asgrow.

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

"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," said Colby.

This report is from our partners at Mississippi State University Extension.

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