When compared to other forms of crop analysis, unmanned aerial vehicle technology has clear advantages, but there are also problems that remain unresolved. That’s according to Matt Stine, consulting agronomist with Nicholson Consulting Group LLC, Greencastle, and Bruce Erickson, agronomy education and outreach director at Purdue University.
Here are four advantages to using UAVs:
1. Immediate perspective on a field. “Drones are beneficial for providing an immediate field-level perspective,” says Stine. “If we’re wanting to know something that is obviously visible and the crop has canopied, drones are great.”
2. Less expensive. According to Erickson, UAVs are less expensive to fly than airplanes or satellites for capturing imagery.
3. More freedom. A farmer or agronomist has more freedom with a drone because he or she can fly and collect images whenever necessary, rather than having to schedule a flight or wait for a satellite to pass, Erickson says. However, acres covered are far less than other options, so cost per acre may be higher.
4. Lower flying altitude. Drones don’t fly as high as planes or satellites, so they offer the chance for much greater detail and higher spatial resolution, which may or may not be important based on the factors being measured.
Here are four current obstacles to UAV use:
1. Complicated logistics. Many limitations of drone technology are related to logistics, Stine says. It can be difficult and time-consuming to utilize drones when dealing with a growing crop, the large amount of labor required to retrieve images and the financial investment needed to receive results in a timely manner.
2. Time commitment. “To cover acres, it takes more time than most expect from someone who has passed their small unmanned aircraft systems test,” says Stine.
While drones offer different advantages when it comes to field analysis, there has to be commitment to reap all of the benefits.
“If someone isn’t willing to deal with the pain of figuring out how to get images and use them, then they should only expect obvious questions to be answered,” Stine says. Finding a solution to a problem the day the decision needs to be made won’t work.
3. Late discoveries. Field observations can be difficult to act on if it’s too late in the season, or if images haven’t been taken regularly. Stine says processing images is usually not free or enjoyable, and uploading images can be difficult in some areas.
4. Repairs and replacements. “UAVs break, require updates and become outdated,” says Stine. “This is no different than with other equipment.”
Right now Erickson believes it would be hard for many farmers to justify owning a UAV from a return-on-investment standpoint. But, he adds, they’re exciting and fun, and he’s not discounting that value. He recommends that before purchasing one, you should look into other available imagery options.
“There’s more hype and promise than there is actual delivery of value right now,” says Erickson. “UAVs are another platform and one of many choices for getting imagery of a field.”
Carroll and Clodfelder are seniors in ag communication at Purdue University.