Drone on the Farm


Using drones in agriculture isn’t necessarily new, but the latest technology and what you can do with it is ever-changing.

What might have begun as a hobby for many farmers, now is considered more for commercial use. Pilots must follow tighter guidelines set by the Federal Aviation Administration.

An agriculture instructor at Lake Land College in central Illinois said that in recent years, agriculture began using drones more to get an overview of a field, or a tighter segment of the entire farm. Today, that technology allows them to zero in on a single plant – or even an insect.

Lake Land College

“Drones today allow us to tell more about individual plants, as opposed to (overall) fields,” said Ryan Orrick, division chair of agriculture at Lake Land College. “We can do a lot more with the infrared technologies than before. But, mostly, it is about the higher quality of photography and videography. It allows us to do more with diagnostics and preventatives today.”

The ag instructor said the college is bringing some of the latest technology to its students, giving them the cutting-edge techniques to be used on the farm, at home and in business.

Lake Land College uses its 160-acre land laboratory when working with precision ag companies. The college is always looking for new partners, new talent and prospective students, Orrick said.

“We have brought the industry into the classroom,” said Orrick. “We have the people here with the newest and best technology and our students and faculty are getting exposed to that. We are partnering with precision ag companies, utilizing the latest technology on campus and then bringing that into the classrooms.”

Orrick said the quality of the camera is key to learning what’s going on in any section of a field, all the way down to a single plant. Using the latest technology, at 400 feet some cameras can even zoom down to an individual insect on a plant, reducing the need to walk a field and tear into a corn stalk, for example.

“You will be able to see different plant growth levels,” said Orrick. “The next year, when you build your fertilizer map, you can almost manage plants, not just a field. In the 1980s, it was more about the whole farm. We’ve gotten good at putting on fertilizers in grids. That was the change from treating a field, more so than just treating the farm.”

Orrick said the newest drone technology is pretty impressive. He also believes that in the future, satellites will take on similar technology to help in agriculture.

“Doing diagnostics and preventatives to a field, the picture becomes a lot more clear about what is going on,” said Orrick. “Before we could see bare spots in a field after crops would come up. Now we can zoom in and identify more about what is going on in a particular area and more efficiently correct the problem.”

As the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – or drone – takes to the air over a farmer’s field, it collects data, images and information about the plants below. It allows the farmer to see more than just rows of crops. The technology could replace the need to walk a field looking for insects, fungi and weeds.

Today’s UAVs

Robert Miller, a John Deere Technology instructor at Lake Land College, said the technology in the agriculture arena first came at least five years ago as a way of counting crops.

“It used to be you just flew them and you didn’t have GPS or anything,” said Miller. “It was very primitive and had to be mapped out. The cameras were just regular cameras, but now that technology has expanded.”

Today’s drones and cameras allow for the creation of a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, or NDVI. Miller and Orrick explained that NDVI is a measurement used in agricultural assessment regarding the amount of live vegetation and plant health. Also, with just a regular camera on the drone, it can fly over fields and get a very good perspective on the plants farmers grow and the weeds that can harm them.

“The technology tells the reflectiveness off the plant in order to tell how healthy the plant is,” said Miller. “In two to three years, we expect there will be software out that will know what a weed looks like, as well as have the use of Global Positioning System to be able to spray that weed.”

While drones come in all shapes and sizes and with a variety of capabilities, they can be purchased from as low as a few hundred dollars for personal use to several thousands of dollars for professional use.

Miller said the use of drones in ag offers people in the industry a way to save time and money and offer more efficiency to their operation.

“It’s a lot more efficient than walking, especially when we get to where the industry can send out a drone, spot weeds and spray them in a field,” said Miller. “That would be a huge cost savings for a farmer.”

Miller compared the technology to what Smartphone cameras can do with facial recognition. Soon, it will be common for a drone’s camera to separate the weeds from the crops.

“I also think companies like Monsanto, The Equity and South Central FS will have more technology as part of their customer service to see what is going on in the fields,” said Orrick. “Drones are one piece of the precision ag world.”

FAA regulations

The operator must follow Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations which limit flight of a drone to 400 feet in altitude,

“If you are anywhere near an airport, the FAA won’t let you fly one. So those farmers with land near an airport, they won’t be able to fly in those areas,” said Miller.

The FAA requires drone operators to pass the UAV’s aeronautical knowledge test as one of the requirements for flying commercial drones legally.

Lake Land College offers a 12-hour course on what is called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Systems Commercial Certification Exam to legally fly one.

The 12-hour course will prepare students for the Part 107 UAV Commercial Certification Exam. Students will receive basic ground school training, instruction and practice. The instructor will present lecture and material explaining FAA regulations, the national airspace system, weather, loading and performance, operations and safety procedures.

For more information, contact Sandy Spaulding, Professional Development Support 217-234-5087 or at sspaulding@lakelandcollege.edu.

Midwest Aerial Survey

“Today’s precision ag is a way to enhance existing practices and to make more efficient practices,” said Orrick. “We’ve taken it from the farm, to a field, to a section, to now a spot spray. It’s good for the environment. And most people in agriculture, you won’t find better stewards of the land. They are prideful of their work and want this to carry on for generations to come.”

When it comes to agriculture, students today who are interested in agronomy and enjoy technology can almost write their own career and salary, Orrick said.

Sean McQueen, co-founder of Midwest Aerial Survey in Effingham, said he and business partner Drew Sudkamp began using drones after working with land surveying for the oil and gas industry, primarily on pipeline jobs.

“We recognized their potential in the survey industry and only after acquiring our first drone did we start looking at the agriculture side of the business,” said McQueen. “In the past year, I’ve been fortunate to connect with several agriculture professionals that have guided us and helped us to develop and implement services for growers.”

McQueen said his experience with drones reveals the equipment hasn’t changed much. However, upgrades to battery life and stability have greatly improved. The flight software and cameras have also improved greatly, allowing such precision ag work for growers.

“Within the last few years, autonomous flight and obstacle avoidance features have made the drones much easier and safer to use,” said McQueen. “More specialized cameras have also allowed for better quality imagery. New camera types have made their way onto the drones fairly recently, multispectral or NDVI cameras are becoming widely used by growers.”

At Midwest Aerial Survey, new technology for growers and drones includes: stand count analysis, weed density, crop counting, management zone creation, and image quality. Since McQueen and Sudkamp aren’t agronomists, they are still learning about the capabilities of drones in the ag arena.

“We have multispectral cameras that can be used for NDVI and other crop health indexes. However, with the crop health services, I must say we are still looking for agronomists to work with because we have unanswered questions on how to analyze and fully utilize these images,” said McQueen. “But if a grower wants that type of imagery, we are able to provide it.”

Midwest Aerial Survey said its most valuable service at this time is for drainage.

“With our survey background, this is an area that we feel sets us apart from other drone service companies and what a grower is able to do for themselves,” said McQueen. “We are able to provide survey grade elevation maps of entire fields that can be used by engineering firms or tile companies to create drainage plans. We currently work with a few different companies to provide these plans.”

The Equity

Adam Garretson at The Equity in Effingham said technology exists to allow drones to be equipped with spray pesticides, but the FAA isn’t ready to allow drones to carry chemicals.

“We are very far away from being able to deliver chemicals,” said Garretson, a GO SMART Manager at The Equity. “Even if it was allowed, the operator would have to be able to carry a large amount of chemicals to make adequate applications.”

GO SMART is the branded name for The Equity’s precision ag platform. The Equity has 25 licensed pilots, about two at each branch, who fly drones commercially. The company has 16 drones.

“Technically, you can fly one for hobby purposes, but if you are using it to collect images or data over a farm, that is considered for commercial purposes and you have to be licensed,” said Garretson.

Garretson said it is likely that drones will eventually be allowed to make applications, but for now today’s imagery has huge benefits on a farmer’s field.

“The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index will keep improving in the future and get more and more accurate,” said Garretson. “Maps will be much more accurate, with the resolution becoming much better, too. A lot of companies are trying to determine things like nitrogen distress by using light bands recorded by the drone’s images.”

In addition, the cameras can pick up thermal imagery, which measures heat to detect where corn might be healthiest.

Even the basic drone can help a farmer by collecting basic information.

“It will give you a live video feed, which gives you a greater awareness of a field,” said Garretson. “It allows you to scout a field more efficiently and identify problems in season so they can be corrected. Right now, a lot of drone flying is done manually. In the future, I can see these being operational more on an automated level, even having them fly back to its base to recharge themselves.”

Today, depending on the model, a drone can fly about 25-30 minutes on a single charge. Wind conditions can be a factor. Each one has four batteries and are always being charged, so 80-100 acres can be covered on one battery.