At Home With Drones

Emerging technologies and new uses make drones more than just eyes in the sky.

By Jason Jenkins | Photos By © / Kapook2981

Read news about drones in agriculture today, and it may seem like the storylines were lifted directly from the pages of a Ray Bradbury novel. But these reports aren’t science fiction—the future is now.

In California’s Napa Valley, for example, vineyards have begun using remote-controlled mini-helicopters to apply fungicide to wine grapes. The machines carry a payload of more than 6 gallons, making quick work of treating a crop growing in tight spaces on steep hillsides where, before, only workers with backpack sprayers could go.

But chemicals aren’t the only things being sprayed by drones. In upstate New York in the spring of 2018, bees were given an assist with the task of pollination on 7 acres of an apple orchard—a world first. The drone flew 8 feet above the canopy delivering pollen at an optimum rate during the peak of flowering.

These are just two in a seemingly endless list of time-, money- and labor-saving uses for drones. While some new and experimental uses are more complex—such as reforesting previously inaccessible hillsides in Washington, helping trap feral hogs in Oklahoma or even working in tandem with ground-based robots to diagnose crop disease in Illinois—others are quite practical. Just ask Randy Christensen of Scranton, Iowa.

On the Christensen farm in central Iowa, there’s an 80-acre pasture where the family keeps cattle. While it’s great for cows, this patch isn’t exactly the most accessible ground, and a treeline obscures the view from the house.

“It’s kind of a pain to walk and almost impossible on a four-wheeler,” says Christensen, describing the chore of checking the cattle. “But with the drone, I can just fly over those trees, see the cows back there grazing and then fly back home.”

Checking livestock may seem like a simple use for an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), better known as a drone, but it’s just one everyday task these machines make faster and easier. Not only has Christensen used the technology on his family’s farm, but he’s also employed it with his customers at Christensen Ag Services, a business through which he and his wife, Jenni, sell seed, offer crop insurance and provide custom chemical application.

“What better way to show [customers] what’s out there than to give them a bird’s-eye view?” Christensen asks, noting he also uses drones for tasks such as scouting for nutrient deficiencies and pest infestation. “With the drone, you can show them the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Airborne Advantage

Since 2016, when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration released regulations for flying drones for commercial purposes, their use in American agriculture has grown significantly. (Canada established its first rules for commercial drone use in 2010.) A survey released this past summer by Munich Reinsurance America Inc. found that 74% of U.S. farmers currently were using or considering the use of drones to assess, monitor and manage their farms.

“Drones are great for what I call the ‘Three Ds,’” says Victor Villegas, technology and media support coordinator for Oregon State University Extension. “They can do the work that’s dangerous, dirty or dull.”

It doesn’t take long for Villegas—known to many as the “DroneSinger,” an alter ego he created to advocate for drones and their safe operation—to rattle off a quick list of “Three D” farm tasks a drone could complete. Why make the dangerous climb to the top of a grain bin to inspect the roof when a drone can provide you images in mere minutes? Why trudge through the mud to inspect a crop for hail damage when a drone allows you to assess the field from the sky? Why manually count tree-nursery inventory when a drone can tackle the pedestrian chore quickly and accurately?

Such examples are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to practical on-farm drone applications. According to Dennis Bowman, University of Illinois Extension educator, commercial agriculture, the technology has progressed to a point where drones can be a tool for making agronomic decisions.

“Having a drone on the farm to do your own crop scouting is a model I’m seeing a lot of folks get into,” he says. “It’s a tool for anomaly detection. Farmers are farming more and more acres, and it’s hard to have an intimate understanding of every acre without help from technology.”

Bowman began his Extension career as a general agronomist, and he recalls how the job of scouting fields became more difficult as the season progressed. While early in the year, an entire field can be assessed relatively easily, that ability decreases as the crop grows.

“You lose the altitude advantage you once had, especially with corn,” he relates. “Instead of seeing across a field, [later in the season] you can only see a few feet, and so you’re down to just doing a few random spots in the field and hoping if there’s any kind of problem, you’ll catch it.”

Before he used drones, Bowman says, “I always felt a little bit nervous when I made recommendations because there could be something out there we were missing. Now with drones, we can assess the whole field in season, under current conditions, and make management decisions accordingly.”

Using various software programs, individual images taken across a field from a drone can be stitched together to create zone maps that assess in-season and year-to-year variability. More advanced tools, such as normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) sensors, can further guide precision agriculture prescriptions.

Nutrient deficiencies, disease and pest problems, and even population stand counts can be detected or diagnosed with a drone. In Iowa, Christensen Ag Services uses a drone to evaluate in-season nitrogen needs, as well as to determine if disease thresholds warrant fungicide treatments.

“We’ve also used [a drone] to evaluate how tiling a field improved drainage and to measure corn hybrid differences on standability following a windstorm,” Christensen says. “On one field, we even discovered that when they had applied manure, there was a plugged knife on the applicator.”

Both Villegas and Bowman agree that seeing crops from another perspective is valuable, even if a producer doesn’t find an issue. “If you put a drone up and the whole field looks great, well, there’s something else you don’t have to worry about,” Bowman adds. “You can get a good night’s sleep.”

Fly By The Rules

While flying a drone for recreation doesn’t require licensing, the same can’t be said for commercial uses, including agriculture. Currently, operators in the United States are required to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate under the FAA’s Small UAS Rule, known as Part 107. In Canada, a Special Flight Operations Certificate must be obtained from Transport Canada, although as of press time, a proposed change to this rule would allow pilots to fly drones weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) for agricultural purposes without a certificate.

Both countries currently have maximum heights at which drones may be operated—400 feet in the United States and 295 feet (90 meters) in Canada—and both require that drones be operated during daylight hours and within visual line of sight of the operator. This latter requirement, which is being reconsidered in Canada and for which the FAA has granted a handful of waivers, has limited the application of drones in many cases, Villegas says.

“Some of the ‘prosumer’ drones can transmit live video from 3 miles away, but you’re not able to see that drone,” he says. “Once flight beyond visual line of sight is allowed, the floodgates for agricultural uses will really open up.”

Should a farmer decide to get licensed to pilot a drone, the next choice is the style of aircraft to fly. Both fixed-wing (airplane-like) and multi-rotor (helicopter-like) drones are available on the market, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Bowman says that while fixed-wing drones typically can fly longer with larger payloads than multi-rotor drones, taking off and landing them is more difficult. They also are more expensive.

He recommends that farmers start with a basic prosumer drone with a standard camera before investing in more expensive aircraft and sensors. Bowman also encourages farmers to consult their insurance agent about obtaining liability coverage before they start flying. “If they intend to do some outside business beyond their own farms, they need to look at higher levels of insurance.”

Back in Iowa, Christensen continues to find new uses for a drone both on the farm and in his consulting business. “This technology is incredible,” he says. “Wherever your imagination can go, there’s probably a way you can use a drone for it.”