Drones hold promise for agriculture
Aaron Sheller was sitting in a lawn chair behind his machine shop in Hamilton County, Ind., when his farm business partner asked, "What are you doing?"
"I'm scouting our corn, Mom."
In the old days, farmers walked through their fields of corn and soybeans, searching for aphids, weeds and other pests or problem areas.
In the near future, farmers will launch their drones and steer them a few hundred feet above the fields, where specialized cameras can take photos and deliver data to laptops or tablets.
Last summer, Sheller, a seventh-generation farmer, and Matt Minnes, an Urbana High graduate and former punter on the Illini football team, established Precision Drone, which sells unmanned aerial vehicles to farmers. Sheller predicts drones will be used on about 20 percent of farms in two years and on 50 percent of farms in five years.
"It's just awesome," 74-year-old farmer Lin Warfel said of the promise of unmanned aerial vehicles for agriculture. He's planting his 52nd crop this week in the Tolono area.
"I'd hate to quit because it's just so much fun," he said.
Warfel plans to rent a drone for fun this season, to try out the new technology.
In the farming world, you can't pick up a farm publication, attend an ag conference or drop by the coffee shop these days without hearing about unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.
Fixed-wing or helicopter-style aerial vehicles are the latest in a string of technological advances to come to the farm at a time when farms are growing in size and the average age of farmers rises.
In East Central Illinois, there always have been plenty of early-adopters — Warfel added an Apple IIe to his business in the early 1980s. And in recent years, many rapidly took to GPS-guided devices, auto-steer tractors and precision agriculture, which involves making farming decisions, such as nitrogen applications, based on analyzing data through remote sensing technology.
UAVs are the new frontier, said Doug Yoder with the Illinois Farm Bureau. He believes farmers are split on the issue, with some ready now to adopt the new tool and others on the fence, concerned about the legal and privacy issues that come with farmers and non-farmers flying drones in the country.
"A lot of people are at the thinking stage with UAVs," Warfel said.
"The industry is racing full-speed ahead," Yoder said, with all kinds of small and large companies making and selling drones and cameras and software for those drones. It's a bit like the "Wild West," he said. The industry also is in what Yoder described as an "awkward, gray area right now."
Congress has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to issue guidelines for unmanned aerial vehicles by 2015. Operators are allowed private use of a drone if it is no larger than a model airplane and if they fly it below 400 feet and away from populated areas or airports, Yoder said.
The idea of Amazon operating drones through a subdivision and making deliveries can be scary, said Dennis Bowman, crops systems educator with University of Illinois Extension.
"A farmer flying over his own field in the middle of nowhere is a totally different situation," he said.
FAA rules dictate that those operating a drone must be in control of it at all times, Bowman said. Farmers want what he called "autonomous flights," which would involve the farmer directing the drone to fly in a specific pattern, take pictures in a specific direction and then return to where the farmer awaits.
While the FAA develops its rules, interest groups have been pressuring the agency to come up with an interim set of rules.
Also in the meantime, companies and their sales representatives are making house calls and taking orders.
Foosland resident Matt Barnard farms in Ford, McLean and Livingston counties with his father and brother. He worked in the seed and chemical industry for 15 years before joining the farm full-time.
His business, Chief Agronomics, launched the "Crop Copter" earlier this spring after he experimented with different UAVs and custom-built different models with the farmer in mind. Barnard said the goal was to build something extremely easy to fly, durable and cost-effective.
Just as sports teams watch videos of games, so too will farmers watch videos and examine still photographs (taken of their fields by UAVs) to see how the crop is performing, he said.
"It's a good tool to see a lot of acres in a short amount of time," Barnard said.
Farmers, he said, want to maximize output and minimize input. And their operation can be more profitable when they reduce the amount spent on "inputs" such as fertilizers like nitrogen or urea and pesticides. If information from the drone shows a pest or disease outbreak is limited to a specific area, the farmer does not have to broadcast an entire field with the expensive and harmful chemical.
"It's good for the environment and it's good for profitability," Barnard said.
Prices for drones range widely, from what Bowman describes as a hobby system for about $250 to less than $1,000, although many systems run much higher than that, up to $40,000 to $50,000.
Warfel suspects that the large-scale farmers will eventually own their own drones and how common they will be with other farmers could depend on any future regulation decisions by the FAA.
Drones also can save labor.
Barnard's No. 1 customer falls into the 40- to 65-year-old category.
This time of year, it's pleasant enough for farmers to walk their rows of field. But when it's pollination time in July — or late August, with temperatures in the 90s and the tall, scratchy corn stalks full of spider webs — sitting in the lawn chair and operating a drone to check on things does hold appeal.
"This gives us fairly affordable technology to go see things that are kind of out of reach," Bowman said.
UAVs also could help farmers better estimate crop yields, Yoder said, which would ultimately help farmers estimate storage needs, manage their futures contracts and more. The use of infrared photography can also help farmers evaluate plant health and nitrogen intake.
Special cameras also will be able to pinpoint insects as small as aphids, Warfel said. And they can identify wet areas in a field where drainage tiles might be plugged. They can scope out a field after planting to watch corn emerging from the soil and help them make better decisions about areas that may need replanting, he said.
"It's another layer of information with data, so we're making decisions from good data instead of by the seat of our pants," Warfel said.
Uses for drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, on the farm
— spot insects and insect damage
— examine disease outbreaks
— evaluate plant health and nitrogen needs
— survey possible flooding and drainage issues
— estimate crop size
What: The Precision Aerial Ag Show in Decatur will feature indoor and outdoor exhibits and demonstrations, talks by farmers, university researchers and an attorney. Several manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to participate. They include Ag Eagle, SenseFly, Horizon Precision, MLB, Trimble, Precision Drone and others.
Event details: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 9 and 10.
Location: Progress City USA showground, Decatur.
More info: paas2014.com.