Craig Williams, a Penn State Extension educator, has been out buzzing soybean fields with an unmanned aerial vehicle, popularly known as a drone. It's part of a UAV evaluation project funded by a Pennsylvania Soybean Board research project.
Remote controlled UAVs are much smaller and different than drones used for military purposes, he points out. More akin to a hobby plane, they're controlled by radio signals via a remote controller or Bluetooth signals via i-Pad. Equipped with cameras, a fly-over can give a bird's-eye view of fields.
Williams is one of only two Northeast Extension persons evaluating how UAVs might be put to productive use in agriculture. He's testing the technology for use in making crop management decisions about pest control and fertilizer application patterns.
UAVs range from low-end quadcopter planes with GPS technology and standard point-and-shoot cameras to sleek, high-end, fixed-winged crafts equipped with infrared cameras, sensors and other technology. Each is remotely controlled by a pilot on the ground.
Williams is working with one of the lower-end models to conduct flyovers and take pictures and videos of various farm soybean plots. His 22-inch-long, light-weight plastic UAV is equipped with four rotors that enable it to hover, move up or down and forward or backward. A camera onboard wirelessly stream field footage directly to his iPad.
Working with cooperating farmers, Williams followed soybean plot progress from planting to harvest. But for now, UAV use is restricted to hobby use under 400 feet, plus other restrictions connected with commercial aviation. Until the Federal Aviation and Administration approves commercial UAV use, use of the technology is in a holding pattern, says Williams.
FAA rules currently restrict civilian use to recreation and certified research projects. But once the commercial regulations are in place, the sky's the limit for farmers. In fact, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group that represents producers and users of drones and other robotic equipment, predicts that 80% of the commercial market for drones will be for agricultural uses.
Crop progress fly-over
"Looking straight down on fields [with a camera-equipped UAV]," adds Williams, "you can see if there was a mechanical problem with the planter that repeats itself across the field, see if parts of the field have a different soil type that calls for additional nutrients to be added to the area, or perhaps find a wet area that needs tile drainage."
Soybean crop monitoring is usually done through visual inspections by farmers simply walking their fields to look for crop stress and other damage caused by insects and disease. However, due to the sheer size of some fields, Williams says it's difficult to monitor problems strictly from the ground.
Drones can augment crop management efforts by providing a snapshot of the entire crop's condition from a 300-foot view in high-resolution images. Those images can later be stitched together to make a mosaic field photo that the farmer can use to make decisions on when and where to spray pesticides or apply herbicide treatments.
"Today's farmers are more inclined to embrace the technology if it'll help them make better decisions about how to manage and care for their crops," he says. However, operating their own UAVs and weaving all that data together might be too much of a learning curve for some growers who prefer to leave the use of the technology to the experts.
So until commercial drone services are approved and widely used in agriculture, Williams will continue to do flyovers, scout fields and give feedback on the vehicle's performance as a service provided by Extension. Expect more educational workshops and demonstrations on how UAVs may be adapted to crop management.