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
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.
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
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.
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