Thad Taylor, a middle-aged, second-generation farmer from Fountain County, felt like he had seen it all. But in 2012, when unmanned aerial vehicles made their way into agriculture, Taylor was truly surprised.
“At first, I was concerned about privacy,” he says. “But our consultant is able to utilize the drone to look for problem areas in our fields, which has been helpful for both him and me.”
That consultant is Matt Stine, an agronomist for Nicholson Consulting Groups LLC, Greencastle.
Stine says several farmers have taken an interest in drones, and he expects continued growth with utilization of the technology. However, Stine predicts some of the new Federal Aviation Administration restrictions on UAVs could serve as a barrier.
“I think drones will cover more acres, but how the enforcement of new regulation goes may determine if farmers do the flying, or if it is a service being provided,” says Stine.
UAVs in agriculture
“We have been using sensor data from airplanes and satellites for decades, but UAVs are more interesting to people because they are more portable and more adaptable,” says Bruce Erickson, agronomy education distance and outreach director at Purdue University.
UAVs’ sensors gather images to measure a variable that can be managed in a field, such as plant stands, pests or plant nutrients.
According to Erickson, the key to using sensors is that they must measure something that relates to a variable that can be managed.
“If this part of the field shows up a little lighter green, what does that mean, and what are you supposed to do about that?” says Erickson. “It might mean something or it might not. Remote sensing is a relational measure, meaning that what you see is related to what is occurring on the ground, but it’s not absolutely a description of what’s going on.”
If a spot in the field shows up a different shade of green, the farmer or his adviser knows there’s a discrepancy, but doesn’t know whether this is caused by disease, lack of nutrients or soil health.
Crop scout’s view
Remote sensing involves the reflection of electromagnetic energy (light, but even beyond that which is visible), which can be used to detect differences. According to Stine, there are several uses for this technology.
“If you want to know the extent of an issue, see patterns in a field or try to get true perspective on problems, instant aerial perspective is a great tool for the toolbox,” says Stine.
However, he also believes there’s still a high demand for on-foot scouting by an agronomist because drone technology alone doesn’t currently have the capability to explain differences.
“A photo looking down can show there is a problem,” says Stine. “But to understand what the problem is and why it’s occurring, a person is typically required in the field.”
The majority of field and crop questions that Stine seeks answers to can only be answered through on-foot scouting, digging and looking at physical crops.
“We do more with a UAV each year, but it is still a strong minority of the time spent,” he says. “The vast majority of our time is still on foot.”
In the future Stine is hopeful that his company will implement more processes that involve drone use. A combination of drone technology and skills consultants have is a dynamic duo. Stine says it’s not simply one or the other, and emphasizes a need for both.
Because of the newness of the technology and variable nature of agriculture, ag economists don’t have an equation available to determine the economic viability of implementing UAVs.
“What will pay for the UAV is the farmer’s ability to use the technology to make better decisions about what he is doing on the farm,” says Erickson. “UAVs can range from a few hundred dollars up to tens of thousands of dollars.
“So the information that a farmer gets from the UAV and the way he uses the information has to outweigh the cost of purchasing and maintaining the equipment.”
Better future decisions
“Drones have made huge improvements in the last few years, and I anticipate the same will happen in the next two years,” says Stine.
“I think all farmers should have some sort of late-season aerial imagery, at a minimum, for wind insurance and nitrogen evaluation,” he says. “These can be delivered from a grain leg, UAV, plane or satellite.”
Stine believes that in time, drones and satellite images will make agronomists’ ground efforts more successful and efficient.
Drones are joining soil mapping, soil testing and yield monitoring as ways to provide farmers and agronomists with information to help them better understand what’s occurring in fields.
“The data that you get from a UAV is another layer of information that is part of the current data transformation of farming, where you get more and more information from the field, and hopefully can understand what it all means,” says Erickson.
He believes the future of agriculture will be reliant on extracting more insight from this data. The goal will be using data to guide future management recommendations.
“In the future, UAV technology will help tell the farmer how many seeds to plant per acre or what hybrid to plant or how much fertilizer to use on his fields, or portions of his fields, the next year,” says Erickson.
He compares this prediction process to forecasting weather. Just as weather services use sensor data from thousands of locations plugged into a predictive algorithm to forecast the weather, farmers and agronomists hope to use current data collected from UAVs, along with other data, to predict what will occur in fields the next week, later that year or even the next year.
Obstacles to overcome
Field data is complex and cannot simply be plugged into a formula to get a recommendation. Weather, crop and soil conditions vary year to year and field to field. Weather is purely physics. Fields are biological systems, which are less predictable.
“This is proving to be a really complicated set of information, so it might take a few more years to make some headway in understanding all the interrelationships,” says Erickson.
Stine and Erickson both believe UAV use will grow in 2017. The only way to truly understand the role of UAVs is to wait and see how farmers like Taylor respond and evolve to make the technology work for them.
Carroll and Clodfelder are seniors in ag communication at Purdue University.