HomeWhat’s happening in farmers’ fields with drones

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Corey Oeschger grows many crops on his Thumb farm, from beets to wheat. But it’s his flock of drones that has really taken off in the past few years.

When he got his first buzzing farmhands in 2012, he expected to do business around just Huron County. Now farmers from Traverse City to Kalamazoo to northern Indiana hire Oeschager and his flock for aerial-analysis of their fields or buy drones from his Thumb Drone Works to do it themselves.

Drones became about half of his business, he says. Farming beets is now “my day job,” he says. “My drone business kinda started as a hobby that blew up.”

It was an expensive hobby, so he studied how to justify it on his farm’s budget. Drones could spot problems in the fields quicker than the old method — walking the rows. From the air it was easier to see spots that the fertilizer missed, irrigation problems, bad field tiles, and the like.

He invested in thermal and infrared cameras, drones that could gather NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) data, to spot what regular cameras and the human eye miss. Last year, during a dry summer in the Thumb, he got a grateful text from a neighbor after pointing out a patch of beets that infrared showed were not growing regularly. The neighbor discovered they were not getting water due to a plugged irrigation nozzle. “Saved him a couple thousand dollars,” Oeschager says.

Drones that can practically fly themselves, carrying multispectral cameras and now LIDAR (laser radar), “all that stuff is the next big thing.” But the biggest advances Oseschager has seen in the industry is not so much in the equipment, but in the software. “What do you do with all these images?” How does the average farmer analyze complex data?

Drones are becoming essential in the precision agriculture trend, which combines technologies to ensure that crops grow healthy without wasting chemicals and water.Part of the overall goal of precision agriculture is to reduce environmental stress from farms.But some farmers aren’t going to spend money on new technologies just because they’re good for the environment, Basso realizes. “These pretty maps, the farmers should not necessarily invest in, unless they see a value.”

The issue of feeding a growing population, in a changing climate, should be addressed now instead of when “there are food shortages,” Basso says.Farmers have a way with sticking with what’s worked for them in the past. Basso predicts that drones and other technologies will become cheaper and more-prevalent as large farms become more prevalent.Also, new generations, more-attuned to technology, will get into farming, he says. “When I talk to the younger managers, they just can’t wait to see the drone coming to the farm, to see the maps.”