Andrew Dierks pulled the rugged black crate from the box of his pickup, snapped open the clips and pulled out a piece of farm equipment that would have seemed completely out of place just a few years ago. Dierks set the gleaming white quad copter on the ground, connected his smart phone to the controller and sent the whirling device soaring above the soybean field near Worthington, Minnesota.

Dierks was hired by a neighbor to see if he could identify the location of decades-old drain-tile lines present in the field. Getting a bird’s eye view from above the fields with the help of a drone provides a perspective that farmers just can’t get from the ground.
“I’ve used the drone to check weed pressure, mark tile lines, check tiles to see if they’re plugged and monitor overall plant health,” Dierks says.

Eyes in the sky

The advent of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, has given farmers another tool to help them get the most out of their crops. Thousands of farmers across the country have invested in their own machines or have enlisted crop consultants to fly fields for them. The potential for monitoring fields for weed issues, plant emergence or health problems is attractive to many farmers.

“When I bought my drone last year, I was the 19th person that had bought one from that store that day,” Dierks says. He says the store wasn’t running a special or having a promotion. “It was just a random day.”

Jim Love has been working with imagery since 1992, when the best farmers could hope for were bad satellite images that might not be available for several days.

As light robotics manager for Beck’s Hybrids in central Indiana, Love is interested in many forms of remote mapping and sensing, including the potential offered by UAVs. He says airplanes helped farmers get field images more quickly than satellites, but still didn’t offer the immediate information that can be gleaned from UAVs.

“Lag time kills the value to a farmer,” Love says. “The value of a UAV is you can fly it in the morning and have data by the afternoon.”

Despite the promise offered by UAVs, Love says the only people really using UAV technology are the early adopters. He says although a few farmers are doing georeferenced maps, most are just using it for the imagery. Those images can reveal where soil compaction is an issue or indicate possible problems with seed emergence.

“You can identify patterns you can’t see from the ground, like tillage and planting patterns,” Love says. “If you see it, you can figure out what created that pattern.”

Untapped potential

Love believes UAV use will expand in agriculture as sensor technology and interactivity improves. He also says once more people begin gathering data using remote sensors, databases analyzing that information will flourish, giving farmers access to even more material on which to base production decisions.

“This technology will allow farmers to generate actionable data,” Love adds. “When we can get data quickly enough, we can help farmers fix things in a timely fashion in order to be most productive. We’ve never had that before.”
Love believes the use of UAVs and other types of remote-sensing platforms are here to stay, even if they are in relative infancy. However, he advises farmers who are interested in using them to take their time deciding if it’s the right thing for them.

“Ford didn’t build the Lincoln Town Car first, he started with the Model T,” says Love. “Start slow and make sure it fits your needs before you make a big investment.”

Commercial providers do fly fields for farmers, eliminating the need for growers to buy their own UAVs. Research is also being done in North Dakota on the use of large drones, capable of flying tens of thousands of acres per day. North Dakota State University is currently partnering with a company based in Israel on a research project that involves an unmanned 35-foot craft that can cover as much as 50,000 acres per hour, taking images with 2-inch ground definition from 8,000 feet.

Michael Starek, assistant professor of geospatial engineering at Texas A & M University-Corpus Christi believes unmanned aerial system (UAS) remote sensing will become even more valuable when information from those sensors and corresponding data can be linked intelligently with farm machinery.

“Data needs to be better connected to farming tools, like sprayers adapted for working with this level of spatial detail,” Starek says. “Linking UASs with tools on the ground will open new doors in precision farming”

That potential may still be developing, but farmers like Dierks are sold on the technology for the long haul.

“I’m a big believer in it,” Dierks says. “I look for a big increase in their use.”