Drones may be helpful to evaluate a crop and map out a landscape, but they can be expensive investments.
Randy Price, associate professor of the LSU AgCenter, stationed at the Dean Lee Research and Extension Center in Alexandria, La., recently talked about a cheaper drone now available, during one of the Dean Lee Research and Extension Center Virtual Field Day videos. The cheaper drone, or others like it, may be a good option for those getting started in using drones around their farm.
"One of my jobs is looking at the new technologies available that farmers might be interested in," Price said. "There are high-end drones with multi-spectral cameras, but we don't recommend this kind of drone for beginners because it requires expensive software and a high-end computer to work right."
A package for a higher-end drone costs anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000. For a novice, a package set is preferable because it provides everything needed from start to finish with one set of software.
"We find that oftentimes people get more expensive drones, and they don't use them as much as they thought they would because of the technology and the cost involved," Price said.
There are newer drones between $400 and $1,000 that are smaller but also effective for flying over a field to check on the crop or do mapping.
"The one we have doesn't map as well as these higher-end drones, but it does do a pretty good job," Price said.
When considering drones
Smaller, less expensive drones are ideal for a farmer who has never worked with a drone before and who just wants to see what he/she can do with it.
"Maybe you're just interested in flying in the back of a field to check the irrigation or wanting to see how the sugarcane's burning off," Price said. "The DJI Mavic Mini is a good option. The Mavic mini came out six months ago and has a 250-gram minimum weight. If you get below that minimum weight in some countries, you don't have to have a license to use it for commercial purposes. This drone was built to have near-commercial quality type functions while still being lightweight.
"However, the U.S. got rid of the minimum weight, and they still require an FAA Part 107 if the drone is flown for commercial use on a day-to-day basis. If you're just curious about what a drone can do, you can get a drone like this, not have to get the Part 107, and fly it for research and educational type purposes."
If the drone is used often to enhance the farm and help the farm make more money, the FAA Part 107 license is required.
"This drone, although it is small, flies for 20 to 30 minutes," he said. "Some of our bigger ones can take a little bit more wind, but we have had this in quite windy conditions with no problems. You may be limited on the wind speeds when you do fly, though. If you do get in a situation where you're flying in windy conditions, come down lower to the ground where the winds are less."
Another beneficial aspect of having a smaller drone versus a larger one is that if it falls out of the sky, it will not cause a lot of damage to whatever it hits. If you do want a slightly larger drone, we have been testing the DJI Mavic Air which has some even better flight characteristics and even notifies you if manned aircraft are around.
"Always make sure you have a full battery before flying a drone," Price said. "Most of the accidents that occur with drones are because of battery failures, so we recommend to always charge it the night before you plan to use it. If you have plenty of fresh batteries, you probably will never have a problem with the drone."
Mapping with a drone
Most higher-end drones require software, which runs anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000.
"The reason you buy software is the FFA has a rule where you can't fly this out of the line of sight and over 400 feet," Price said. "Because of the 400 feet aspect, you need to tilt the camera to look straight down at the crop."
Drones only capture about 5 or 6 acres per image. If examining a 300-acre field, the drone will take several hundred images, and the specialized software will put the images back together to give one large mosaic of the farm field.
"We've been doing some experimentation with the DJI Mavic Mini drone by flying it over a field to get a video, looking straight down over the field," he said. "After going back and forth a couple of hundred feet up in the air, we use a free program called Microsoft Image Composite Editor. This program makes a 2-D map from a video or still images. The mapping with this program is not as good as the $2,000 software, but it does well for a free program. Make sure you have a little bit of overlap on your return passes when getting images to have a better map layout."
Gaming computers are ideal for mapping with extensive video footage.
"If you get a drone, usually you need a tablet or cell phone," Price said. "We do find that Apple devices work a little bit better than the Android devices when switching between programs. We do recommend using a tablet because it's a little bit bigger, especially if you're using a drone often. A USB cable that is 5 or more feet is also good to use between the transmitter and the tablet.
"One note about buying a tablet is to make sure you get one that has cell phone utilities with GPS built into it. With the tablets without GPS capability, you will find yourself possibly several miles off from the mark.
"Using drones is a great way to help make management decisions on the farm to enhance your precision farming operation."