If you ask anyone that knows me well, they will agree that I am the least tech-savvy person they have ever met. Among my peers, I was the last one to obtain an e-mail address and I would most certainly still be using a typewriter if one could still be purchased. The only reason I use a smartphone is because my wife bought it for me, after she threw away my old flip-phone and disconnected our land line. Five years later, I’m only able to use its most basic functions.
Knowing these facts, everyone (including me) was shocked when I opened the Christmas gift from my wife and found myself staring at an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. That’s right: a drone.
Evidently, she had heard me comment over the past couple of years how I thought the device could have some very practical uses here on the farm. I had jokingly remarked that I could use the vehicle to find missing cows during calving season, check on fences when portions of them were not accessible by truck, and it could even be used to scout the neighbor’s barbecue grills to enable me to show up, unannounced, at their place at exactly the right time.
Unfortunately, flying a drone is not as easy as unpacking it, charging it, and putting it in the air. After I took it from the box and spent two days reading the 25-page “easy start-up” booklet, I then had to spend three days downloading something called “firmware.” I don’t know what it is, but I assumed it to be something halfway between “software” and “hardware.”
Actually, I didn’t perform this operation, but rather my youngest son, fresh off a degree in computer science. Once it was uploaded into the drone, emergency lights flashed on every device (drone, controller, and computer) warning me of a “gimble overload.” My tool box full of wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, and hammer were unable to fix it (I may have needed a larger hammer), so I called the toll-free number in the booklet and the nice gentleman stated, quite emphatically, “Shut down everything immediately, and send it back! You have a defective unit.”
Two weeks and one drone later, I repeated the same process.
When everything finally worked, I patiently waited for a calm day and proceeded to my first lift-off. I was overly cautious, but all systems were go (that’s the way we talk in aerospace terminology) and I successfully flew the vehicle over pastures and woods at an altitude somewhere around a hundred feet, for about 20 minutes. There were no problems and the pictures relayed to my smartphone were absolutely spectacular. This was going to be fun.
A few days later, I was feeling more confident in my ability to pilot the rig and began to range out higher and farther from home. Spotting a herd of cows in the north pasture, I decided to swoop down and get a good count on them since calving season has just started for me. As I lowered the machine closer to the cows, the picture was clear enough that I could start to see heads and ears rise on the animals. Yet, closer, the cows with new calves started forming protective circles around the newborns. Cows without calves began to run from the copter—a nice little trot at first, then a full-blown panicked run—straight for the nearest fence.
As it turns out, I was right. A farmer can use these new, high-tech devices to find, or unfortunately create, holes in their fences without ever getting out of the house.
Crownover is a beef rancher in southwestern Missouri.