By KEVIN WALKER
COTTAGE GROVE, Wis. — For decades hobbyists have played with radio-controlled airplanes and other models. Now, so-called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are starting to be used for serious agricultural purposes.
The UAVs, commonly called drones, work a lot like radio-controlled model planes, although with UAVs the pilot flies the vehicle with a computer tablet. Some models can go up to a quarter-mile away, according to Dan Moehn, vice president of agronomy at Landmark Services Cooperative (LSC) in south-central Wisconsin.
LSC offers services to farmers, including pesticide applications and field scouting. Now the company is offering the UAV service as part of a package to its customers; Moehn said UAV is really a value-added service. The company hasn’t figured out yet if using the UAV is cost-effective for the company, however; it’s just too early to tell.
“At some point we’re going to try to figure out how much value it has for us,” Moehn said. “If we do a better job I think our farmers will recognize that.”
LSC isn’t spending a huge amount for its UAVs, but they are expensive even on the low end. A UAV can cost anywhere from $2,000-$20,000. “In my marketplace, I don’t know of anyone using this technology,” Moehn stated.
A camera on the UAV takes pictures of a grower’s field as it flies over, providing a bird’s-eye view. This perspective can provide the grower with a better feel for what’s going on. Although growers still must walk their fields to look for signs of diseased plants, an aerial view of a field could help the farmer discover problems with the crop early.
Most often the fields being evaluated are corn, soybeans, or alfalfa. According to the company, the period of time between planting and pollination is the most critical for crop success. Field scouting can help growers make changes to their cropping strategy, based on crop conditions.
The potential of UAVs for field scouting is being noticed elsewhere. At Oregon State University, for example, researchers at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center are using two small UAVs to fly over potato fields in the area as part of the center’s efforts to help farmers use water, fertilizer and pesticides more efficiently and, ultimately, help farmers save money.
According to the research center’s website, the UAVs are flying over 50 acres of the university’s research property this season, as well as several acres of other cropland, totaling 1,000 acres. The flights are done three times a week.
Different cameras on the UAVs take pictures of the crop. The cameras can detect different wavelengths of light. Less-healthy plant material reflects less light than healthy plant material and this difference is picked up by the cameras. The idea with this project is to demonstrate how UAVs can help the grower discover and, therefore, address problems with the crop early on.
UAV technology was also showcased at last year’s Farm Science Review (FSR) and will be featured at the 2013 FSR, which will take place in late September through The Ohio State University.
Right now a farmer can fly a UAV but a company or educational institution can’t do so without a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration, said Chuck Gamble, manager of the FSR. But he said the law is supposed to change in 2015. The waiver allows a company or educational institution to fly a UAV as high as 400 feet in the air. “Everybody’s coming to this market, that’s what going on,” Gamble said.
He went on to say that while there’s a negative connotation surrounding drones – because of their potential for abuse as tools of government or corporate surveillance – agriculture, he said, is excited about it.
“We want to improve the methodologies of crop production,” he said. “There’s just a wealth of information that can be gotten, and you’re going to get it right now; no more waiting.”