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drone flying above cornfield
TIP OF THE ROTOR: That’s a takeoff on “tip of the iceberg.” Many people believe we’ve only seen a glimpse of what UAVs could do for agriculture.

10 things drones could do on the farm someday

If you think this is tongue-in-cheek, you might want to do some homework!

Our 8-year-old grandson, Graham, is captivated by unmanned aerial vehicles. He knows them as drones. He still remembers the time his uncle got a toy drone stuck in a tree. Recently, Graham asked his uncle to bring his drone and fly it for him.

This drone isn’t a toy. It’s a DJI Phantom 4 Pro. There was no getting stuck in a tree this time. My son passed his Part 107 exam from the Federal Aviation Administration and is certified to fly UAVs.

Graham watched in awe as the drone disappeared into the sky. Then he marveled as he saw live images from the drone show up on the monitor.

You have some idea of what drones can do for ag today. What about when Graham is 15? 25? 50?

Think possibilities
Perhaps no one can see out that far. Here are some ideas. Before you think this is all tongue-in-cheek, you might want to do some homework. Some of these ideas may not be as far-fetched as you think.

1. Count corn plants per acre. There are companies that claim drones can do this now. If you have the right app, you can get stand counts in the spring from a drone flight while you watch.

2. Draw maps of weeds in the field. Pie in the sky? Again, you can do this today if you have the right equipment and software.

3. Identify waterhemp from marestail. OK, as far as we know, no one can do this yet. But one software company claims it should be reality within two years. Once you can identify weeds from the air, writing prescriptions to spray them individually may not be far behind.

4. Scout livestock. Our son’s demo flight over the sheep pasture was sharp enough to show that two ewes were marked with red crayon by the ram, meaning they had been rebred. That’s today!

5. Estimate yields before harvest. If you can count stalks in the spring, why not size up number of ears and ear size in the fall? It might take artificial intelligence to do it. Some plant breeders are already working with companies to train software to spot gray leaf spot in breeding nurseries.

6. Spray. Drones big enough to carry liquids and spray already exist. The question is how long before it becomes practical. Talk about avoiding soil compaction!

7. Determine tile location and prepare tile maps. If you think it’s too far-out, you’re not paying attention. If you fly fields at the right time of year today, tile lines that are working show up.

8. Seed cover crops. Why rig up a high-clearance sprayer or mount a seeder on your combine if a drone could do it? Is it happening today? No. Could it happen? Why not?

9. Identify tree species and plan a timber sale. Some Purdue Extension educators who are part of the Quad Squad, armed with UAVs for demonstration purposes, are working with timber owners. Just because you can’t do this today doesn’t mean you never could.

10. Bring lunch to the field. OK, maybe this one is in the George Jetson stratosphere. But if drones can carry payloads, why couldn’t your spouse pack up lunch and send it your way? Never say never.

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

TAGS: Technology
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