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Out of the toy box and into the toolbox

Drone technology can be deployed in various ways across the farm, making it a valuable tool.

Jennifer M. Latzke, Editor

April 26, 2023

3 Min Read
FARM TOOL: Drone technology has come a long way in the past decade. Once a novelty to capture great images from above, they’re now an integral farm diagnostic tool for many agronomists and crop consultants.SimonSkafar/Getty Images

Call them drones, unmanned aircraft systems, unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aircraft, these remote-controlled, or computer-controlled, craft have come a long way in the last decade. Today’s drones are more tools than toys for today’s farmers.

A recent webinar, “Golden Harvest Agronomy in Action” covered the growing role drones have taken on in agricultural applications.

Julia Kamman, technical training lead, Syngenta, shared that since 2016, the first year the Federal Aviation Administration began regulating drone registration, show registrations have steadily risen every year, approaching just over 622,000 registrations flown in the U.S. today. The FAA forecasts that by 2026, that number may reach 858,000 registered drones.

Those drones are used for many applications:

  • crop monitoring and inspection

  • crop input spraying

  • livestock management

  • fire detection

  • surveillance and monitoring

“I think everyone in the industry can agree that every new drone that hits the market is better than the last,” Kamman said. They have advanced in speed and battery life, as well as their handling capabilities. In addition, today’s drones have improvements in mission and path planning, image processing, wireless multimedia communications, autonomous navigation and improved photogrammetry.

“We’re able to evaluate crop health, and better able to scout in the field and cover more ground,” Kamman said. “We’re also able to spray with drones, which will expand things like fertilizer or chemistry like herbicides, fungicides or pesticides. We’re also able to spread seeds like cover crops with drones.”

Farmers are also using drones to monitor for diseases and weed pressure in the field, along with nutrient deficiency. That monitoring also now includes irrigation equipment, watching for equipment breakdowns and keeping a better eye on soil moisture to be more responsible with our water applications.

Deployment of drones

Samantha Kortbein, agronomist, Golden Harvest, explained that the company’s agronomists are using drones with a third-party software called Drone Deploy. The software helps create flight plans across a field — automated, so that you don’t have to touch the controls once it’s in the air, she explained. The software also helps compile all the images that the drone takes along that flight path into one image, allowing the user to monitor the field in real time.

“That’s the real value to us in Drone Deploy — that we are able to see what’s going on in the field from those images,” she said. “But then also having that field start to come together as the drone is flying.” The drones can show lodging to agronomists and help them assess what the next steps should be for the farmer. After a 15-minute drone flight, they can look at the image and then drill down into smaller portions of the field to scout by foot, rather than spending an hour or so wandering through the field to get a rough estimate of crop condition. They’re looking for areas of plant stress, areas of healthier plants, earlier detection of diseases and pests, more targeted weed control and to better be able to identify weather effects.

Drone flights can take a panoramic view of the field and also create 3D models from images.

“3D models are used more commonly in other industries, but in agriculture we are using it for silage piles,” Kortbein said. One short drone flight and a farmer can estimate the volume of a silage pile, calculating from its height and material density as well as account for shrinkage.

Drones are not just toys that take great pictures and videos for your personal use anymore. They really have made it from the toy box to the toolbox.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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