Drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – can collect a lot of data when flying over a field of crops, but they can’t replace an agronomist just yet.
“The technology is not there yet to say you’re for sure short 20 pounds of fertilizer, at this point,” said Nolan Berg, a precision agronomist for Peterson Farms Seed, a North Dakota-based company that has expanded in recent years into eastern South Dakota.
The technology is improving. The cameras and sensors are what need the most improvement, according to Berg.
He foresees the flying devices being equipped with thermal cameras that make images from heat and multispectral cameras that capture light at different wavelengths. They can help detect color changes in the plants and possibly spot diseases earlier.
The technology is out there now, and Berg said the sensors will only get better. “I think the drones themselves will get easier to use, more user friendly,” he added.
Berg never had used a drone when he joined the seed company two years ago, fresh from earning his master’s degree in plant sciences at North Dakota State University.
He has latched onto the technology since, becoming somewhat of an expert. He spoke recently at the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas, talking to the crowd about how agronomists use the technology today.
Geraets said he’s not sure exactly how they’ll use the equipment during the next growing season but added that it will be nice not to have to walk the corn when the stalks are tall.
So far, he has tested it out taking pictures of his farm and getting an aerial view of the combine during harvest. He said his 11-year-old son flies it. “It’s pretty user friendly,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in the process of creating rules for flying drones commercially. Currently, those using them for business purposes need a special certificate from the FAA. That probably will change when the agency comes up with its new rules for commercial use by next June.
Those flying drones as a hobby or for personal use have to keep the machines within the operator’s line of sight and away from manned aircraft.
Geraets’ drone is a DJI Phantom 3 Advanced series remote-controlled quad-copter. It’s equipped with a camera that can take video and still photos. It retails for $1,500 to $1,800.
“It can actually be a very useful tool in crop scouting,” said Rob Thuringer, a Peterson Farms representative based in Madison, S.D. “It is more than just a toy.”