Drones, drones on the range
December 10th, 2013
11:30 AM ET
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Editor's Note: Brian Scott farms with his father and grandfather on 2,300 acres of land in northwest Indiana. They grow corn, soybeans, popcorn and wheat. He blogs about it at The Farmer's Life.

Farmers and ranchers are going to take flight to improve the profitability and sustainability of their operations. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are on the verge of playing a big part in modern agriculture. In fact, many people expect agriculture to be the top market for UAV technology when, by 2015, the FAA lays out regulations pertaining to the commercial use of these systems.

These Aren’t The Drones You’re Looking For

Farmers interested in being on the ground floor of farm UAVs have already learned that "drone" is a dirty word. Proponents of putting this technology in the hands of civilians believe the term conjures images of missile strikes and secret surveillance.

Rest assured that the farms and ranches of America won’t be putting Global Hawks and Predator drones to work. Agricultural devices will be something carried around in the back seat or bed of a pickup truck used to take photos and videos of farmland.

Think of a big kid version of radio controlled helicopters and airplanes. UAVs consist of RC units with a limited range, to fully autonomous units covering more acres via a prescribed flight plan.

UAV Uses
UAVs are literally just the vehicle for the technology that farms want to use. The payload of various cameras is what they are really after. Photo and video are just the beginning of seeing the world from above.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), infrared, and thermal imagery will allow farmers and ranchers to view so much more of their land than can be seen by the naked eye. Imagine a rancher searching out a lost calf separated from the herd after a snowstorm. Instead of hopping on his horse, ATV or pickup to find the animal, he could send up a thermal camera, quickly spot the lost cow’s heat signature and go straight to it. He’ll even be able to see if a particular animal is ill through imagery.

Ranch tasks like checking water troughs and fence lines could become aerial jobs. Crop farms will be able to spot weed or disease pressure before a point in time when they can’t physically get proper equipment in the field. Watching how fields drain after a heavy rain will be of great import when planning drainage systems.

Once the imagery can be solidly linked to crop health, corn farmers will be able to fly out over a cornfield just before applying post-emergence fertilizer. The imagery will be a guide to creating a variable rate fertilizer application, placing more where it is needed most, and less where fertility is high in order to maximize uptake and prevent loss and leaching into groundwater.

Imagery will be tailored to wavelengths that will illuminate specific species of weeds. Problematic weeds in one field can be mapped, and sprayers can focus on just where the problem is versus a blanket application of the field. Less herbicide, less expense. Win-win.

Growers who sustain storm damage, which may qualify for an insurance claim, will get a much better idea of the extent of the it from the air than they would from walking a field. Crop insurance adjusters are going to love this tech. The grower can get a better handle on how much less crop he may have at harvest time leading to more informed future financial decisions.

Fields are often planted with multiple varieties. Aerial imagery can show how hybrids are performing relative to each other instead of waiting until harvest.

At harvest, yield monitors paint a GPS yield map showing the results of a year’s work in what is essentially an aerial view. Results are pinpointed to an exact location in the field. But this is all after the fact.

With this valuable data, farmers can plan for the future, but cannot change the past. With their own aerial gear they will be able to make the decision whether or not to fix an issue in season before crops grow too large to drive tractors and sprayers through them.

The ease and timeliness of capturing imagery when and where a farmer wants rather than comply to a commercial pilot’s schedule is the catalyst that will drive the UAV market. Although farmers regularly scout fields by walking during the growing season a problem may occur in a spot that wasn’t walked. The extent of water damage or the size of a patch of weeds is not easily or accurately estimated from the ground.

It’s all so much clearer from above - "above" meaning 400 feet or less, because that is the altitude at which these devices will have to fly. Larger forms of flight exist in higher air space. Right now I can fly a UAV over my acres for my benefit. What I cannot do is get paid to get images for my neighbors. Commercial UAV use is not yet approved, but the rules should be in place by 2015.

Not Just Sprouting Up
The idea of using photo, video, and imagery data is not new. These things are being done now via airplane and satellite, but those technologies pose issues. A satellite comes around on a set schedule that can’t be changed. Airplanes have duties other than the particular field of a particular farmer. The main problem is clouds get in the way since airplanes and satellites are so high.

With an on-farm UAV, clouds are not a problem under 400 feet and scheduling happens on the farmer’s time. Lower altitude brings much higher resolution data for better management decisions. Imagine what could be seen from 100 feet instead of 3000 feet. These layers of data will not replace boots on the ground scouting. Rather they will aid in the process. Farmers will, as always, need to see with their own eyes.

The United States isn’t quite blazing a path in aerial agriculture. Japanese farms have employed fairly large unmanned helicopters to spray fields for nearly a quarter century. In 2011 these vehicles covered over 1.5 million acres of farmland. However, UAVs are already scanning California grape vines.

Widespread UAV use is going to experience growing pains. Public views on privacy are certainly a concern. Farmers seen standing by their fields flying a UAV are sure to be approached by curious onlookers who could have any number of concerns. The bottom line is this technology will help create more efficient, profitable, and sustainable operations.

Want to know more about where your corn, beef and other foods are coming from? Here's your chance. Brian Scott and plenty of other farmers are listening, so post your question in the comments below and we'll do our best to get you an answer.

Previously:
Despite last year's drought, corn production is popping
Harvesting the lessons of Drought '12
Do consumers really want to see where their food comes from?
After the drought, seeking long-term solutions for farmers
Opinion: Forward-thinking farmers are preventing another Dust Bowl



soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. Dave

    It is sad how much freedom we have lost since 9/11. Personal privacy is a thing of the past. Drones are a reality that will not go away like the atom bomb, except governments and coprorations are more than willing to use them. Everything we do and say on phones and on the internet is monitored; soon just about everything we do will be monitored. I am not doing anything that is illegal yet (thought crime will probably be a reality soon too) and so I don't have anything to hide. If you think all this technological power will not be abused, you are naive. This Brave New World is for the birds.

    December 10, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
    • VladT

      I suddenly want to go to wall street and invest in multiple shares of tin foil.....

      December 11, 2013 at 9:44 am |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

        And Winchester Ammo

        December 12, 2013 at 9:24 am |
  2. Rod C. Venger

    Why is there an assumption being made in this article that farmers will all have their own drones? Does anyone really believe that drones that can see in the infrared or cameras that are multispectral (in order to more easily distinguish between different weed species or to spot diseases) are going to be affordable, off the shelf technologies? How about those insurance adjusters? Shown a set of photographs or video of storm damaged crops, how are they to tell if the land being shown even belongs to the claimant? Farmers may be at the whim of cropduster's schedules, but who is saying that is actually going to change? Why would every farmer buy his own drone and all the extra, specialized equipment that may need to go with it, when it can be had their their local co-op or other association? Do they really want to lay out perhaps 10's of thousands of dollars in capital on an aircraft that they may well crash...or have crash...and then pay to repair or replace? Isn't that sorta like every farmer owning his own cropduster or his own tillers and combines? Much of this equipment is in fact rented or leased. Anyone that lives near a small farming community knows that. So, the technology may be changing, but I suspect that for the most part, the drones will be on display along with the shiny tractors, tillers and other hardware just off main street in small towns all across America...and not parked in a shed with the truck.

    December 10, 2013 at 6:12 pm |
    • Brian

      Hi, Rod. I'm the farmer who wrote the article. I don't think all farmers will have drones, but quite a few will. In fact I'll have my first UAV by the end of the month I hope. I placed an order for it three days ago. Between the kit I bought ( http://bit.ly/18SVP0S ) and some other purchases I made I'll have a pretty good start for around $3500. I'm just taking pictures and video at this point and not thermal or infrared. Once I get a better handle on this stuff I'll look at getting a rig with more range that can fly a whole field autonomously. Like all tech this stuff will get better and cheaper in the years to come.

      Every farm is different. We hire out our spraying and dry fertilizer or manure and the drilling of the little bit of wheat we grow, but we own every other piece of equipment we use. I think you are right that co-ops, fertilizer dealers, etc will be in this business as soon the FAA clears commercial use. In fact they may be able to out-price planes and satellites if they have enough acres to cover. The majority of farms may not have a drone, but there are very affordable and capable models out there. We'll see how this all develops going forward, but I can see flying my own UAV for now. I estimate if I can gain 5 bushels of corn at $5.00/bu through better decision making I can spend $25,000 and break even. And that's just on half the farm not including our soybeans.

      December 10, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
      • Federico

        Hi Brian,
        thank you for the great article! Which drone did you end up purchasing? I am a beginner but would very much appreciate any input. Thank you!

        February 14, 2014 at 4:49 pm |
  3. allenwoll

    CAUTION : Some drones may be equipped to fight back : Retrace weapons.

    December 10, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
  4. Scott

    UAVs are not the problem here folks. It's what people do with them that you need to worry about. If you see a UAV over a farmer's field, chances are he isn't spying on you. I can put a gopro on a 50' pole and get better video of you than I will get with one of these.

    Most of the small UAV's that us regular folks can afford to purchase are still over $1000 and they have a flight time of about 10-15 minutes per battery. So for those of you who are paranoid about being spied on, I don't think you will have anything to worry about. These things are relatively noisy too, so you will know when to hide.

    Then there are those other idiots who think it's OK to shoot these down. The FAA has already stated that shooting at UAVs is not only dangerous, but a federal offense. For those of you that think you can shoot one of the Government drones down, those things are pretty fast. I hope you don't knock it into your neighbor's home and kill someone. Most of you idiots probably haven't thought about that.

    December 10, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
  5. chris

    I hope people realize that incidents like the Colorado town thats voting to shoot down drones are a part of a trend whereby far right-wingers and far-left wingers are sarting to go full circle and meet in the middle. Liberals hate the destruction of American Civil Liberties by the govt as much as Tea Party folks. This has being getting more common in the last 2 years. I hope you realize how dangerous and wonderful this is – me and you agreeing to disagree, but agreeeing that there is a more commone and worrisome enemy

    December 10, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
  6. Wolfgang Halbig

    If you think 911 created panic and fear in the US wait till you see what any idiot angry at our government can do now with a drone. Remember Oklahoma City Bombing well this make it so easy to creat havoc all acoss the US and with a Drone.

    Who is going to be Drone police, who is going to shoot them done when they are carrying biological weapons that can destroy farms and cattle, our watre supply and wait till one of these Drones kills people in a football or basbeall stadium then someone is going to say what idiot allwed these drones to fly.

    You have got to be kidding, someone is going to make billions of dollars and someone is surley going to die sorry millions are going to die.

    But who the hell cares?

    December 10, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
    • Edwin

      Was that even English?

      December 10, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
    • HillClimber

      I know it is English, contrary to the other responder. Please watch for context and spelling. You'll see a red line under misspelled words.

      December 11, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
  7. LoboVonHobo

    There is no doubt the UAV, same as many other technologies, can replace the work of humans on farms and ranches. But don't we have 10% unemployment? As a farm kid gone engineering, I will agree the UAV can 'help' the 'farmer/rancher' types – I have applied many pre-drone technologies to automate people out of work in the auto, aerospace, farming, food-processing, logging, mining, shipping, and construction industries. Do we NEED these UAVs in farming/ranching or any other out-of-doors insustries? Not exactly. But evil, uh, I mean, profits, drives this civilization, so, if the return on investment exists, so will the UAV.

    December 10, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
    • VladT

      Using your logic, I should stop paying for gas and using my car, because with 10% unemployment, I should hire six people to pull me in a rickshaw

      December 11, 2013 at 9:39 am |
      • LoboVonHobo

        We made machines to do much of our manual labor in the late 1800s.
        Enhanced their productivity with electric and diesel engines in the early 1900s.
        Hard-automated them to do more of our work in the mid 1900s.
        Soft-automated them to do more of our work in the 1970s.
        Convinced women to do more of our work in the 1980s.
        Convinced asians to do more of our work in the 1990s.
        Built robots to do more of our work in the 2000s.
        And we wonder why we have 10% unemployment.
        And $17 TRILLION in debt.
        But go ahead, keep up the good work.
        God: "Everything in moderation"
        Nature: "Everything in moderation"
        Man: "F-that, I know better"
        Good luck with that.

        December 11, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
        • VladT

          Your logic is astounding.

          Not meant as a compliment........

          December 12, 2013 at 2:02 am |
        • Shirley U. Jest

          POINT ON!

          December 12, 2013 at 2:20 am |
        • LoboVonHobo

          This logic is contrary to the logic that has us at $17 TRILLION in debt. You may wish to consider what you critique, and, if that's to difficult, then simply consider this: "You can't fix stupid".

          December 12, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
        • VladT

          I am sure the unemployment rate has nothing to do with politicians keep extending unemployment benefits....currently the most allotted ever in terms of weeks people stay on it. Could that be correlated to the debt? You think? I am nowhere near saying that is even close to all of the debt, but when people are paid not to work, and there is no tax revenue to replace it, that contributes to debt.

          To randomly claim that technology is the cause of unemployment, then tell me I am s t u p i d (don't know if that is a blocked word, so spaced it) for disagreeing when you have "facts" taken out of context shows that you can't take the occupy wall street crowd off of eatocracy

          December 12, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
        • LoboVonHobo

          I didn't say it was technology alone that causes high unemployment. And as far as occupying this or that, pea-brained twerps the likes of those are the least of your worries – they represent the flea on the gnat's ass. Anyone who believes a broker should be allowed to buy from off-continent, and for example close a papermill in the USA, just so that one broker can make $10 million per year instead of $5 million per year, and eliminates employment and small business opportunties for 1,000 of the multitudes, will, at some point, be drawn and quarted by those multitudes. It is coming, because the likes of yourself are actually stupid enough to force it to. Yes, YOU are that stupid. Does that shoe fit?

          December 13, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • VladT

      Using that logic, I should abandon usage of my car to hire six people to pull my rickshaw

      December 11, 2013 at 9:40 am |
      • VladT

        Darn screen not rebooting, and making me copy and paste :P

        December 11, 2013 at 9:41 am |
      • Shirley U. Jest

        It's all history. Case and point: Cotton pickers to the cotton gin.
        A form of slavery was made obsolete by machines. And it has happened again. And it is happening now. No bias, anger or regret. It is called progress. Man has more free time now than he did 10 years ago. Look at the unemployment statistics. Of course one must adjust them for the population that no longer is qualified for unemployment compensation. And a recent Yale, or was it a Harvard study, showed that scientists and engineers that found themselves out of work for more than three months were most likely to never to never find employment in their field again.
        Technology is a double bladed sword. And it gets more sharp as technology gets better.
        Corporations follow cheap labor, no matter how high the skill level. As education and technology improves in other third world countries ours, the USA suffers. The United States ranks number 23 in education today. T W E N T Y T H R E E.
        Great Nation? Ask our government what they are doing to make us more competitive. It is in their, no, it is in our best interest.

        December 12, 2013 at 2:32 am |
        • VladT

          And options are...

          1) Try to develop other skills

          2) Whine on and on about the evil technology and cash your unemployment check.

          Which way do you recommend?

          December 12, 2013 at 10:27 am |
        • LoboVonHobo

          Corporations follow cheap labor – because we let them – and we have $17 TRILLION in debt to show for it.
          Make no mistake, Vlad T, the whining will end, and the guillotines will be deployed as never before.
          The concentration camps didn't work – that mistake will never be repeated.
          Be afraid, because your worse enemy is in your head.

          December 12, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
        • LoboVonHobo

          I was out of engineering work for 3 years – while the forced diversification (see CDO, Chief Diversity Officer) of the USA had employers who were offering me jobs just a few years prior were now hiring Asians – 1 BILLION PERCENT DISCRIMINATION. You mindless X have absolutely no clue how utterly and entirely you will be exterminated – so be it, you had 2000 yrs to take your heads out of your butts, now, you will cease to exist. Other than that, have a nice day.

          December 12, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
        • VladT

          I hear black helicopters fast approaching.....

          December 13, 2013 at 3:15 am |
  8. Tom

    It should be interesting on how this plays out with the FAA. I suspect that the General Aviation community will have serious objections to unmanned drones flying around in "their" airspace. Collision avoidance, visibility under VFR conditions and altitude restrictions would be some of their concerns, I'm sure. Recall the recent hullabaloo when Amazon dot com talked about drone delivery.
    Brian, you apparently recently went to a seminar or something dealing with Ag UAV's. Was any of this discussed?

    December 10, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Brian

      Yes this was discussed. Collisions I don't think will be a huge issue with ag use especially since you'll be required to be under 400'. At least that will be the rule anyway. In my case I will have to use some common sense. We farm a few miles from the local airport where the crop dusters are flying from all day in the summer. They can come down well under 400 from what I've seen so I'll have to make there isn't one around. I'm no expert yet, but I'll be learning a lot over the next growing season while I learn to fly my UAV that is on order now.

      December 10, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
      • Shirley U. Jest

        I would like to suggest that you put a bright strobe light on your craft to help give the ag craft in your area a better visual on yours. 400 agl might seem low but to many in Class 3 airspace, it is a good altitude for sight seeing. Visual awareness in low traffic areas is important. Some pilot will thank you for that. I say this as someone who almost ate a RC sailplane under 1000 feet.

        December 12, 2013 at 3:00 am |
        • Shirley U. Jest

          ?really?

          December 12, 2013 at 3:00 am |
        • Brian

          Noted! There used to be a lot of ultralight traffic around here, but I haven't seen anyone out for a couple of years now.

          December 12, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
  9. woodie

    Those drones can take pictures of the marijuana plants. And the meth labs. And the stills. So watch out.

    December 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • Jerv

      LM AO! I know, right? Too funny, wood.

      December 10, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • LoboVonHobo

      This is precisely why the National Forest Service has purchased them. Precisely. And it began in 2006.

      December 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  10. Sean

    .

    December 10, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
  11. Andy

    Great article. Very interesting to hear this perspective from a farmer.

    December 10, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  12. Truth™

    In my neck of the woods, there is one town voting on whether to allow drone hunting or not. No kidding.
    Makes you wonder what the daily bag limit will be.

    December 10, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • Brian

      You live in Colorado?http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/19/us/colorado-town-drone-ordinance/index.html?sr=sharebar_facebook

      December 10, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  13. RichardHead

    All the cow tippers in Indiana will now be caught. And don't even get me started about crop circles….

    December 10, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  14. AD

    Reblogged this on High on Science & Tech – H.O.S.T.

    December 10, 2013 at 11:31 am |

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