Farm Talk

February 4, 2014

Eye in the sky, feet on the ground

Mark Parker

— Soaring over farms and fields for a bird’s eye view of crops and livestock is an intriguing possibility for some farmers and ranchers.

And, perhaps, a whole lot of hogwash for others.

Regardless of your point of view, agriculture’s use of drones is taking off. At the University of Missouri, State Soybean Specialist Bill Wiebold has been getting a handle on Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) possibilities for crop research.

Wiebold, who spoke to farmers recently in Lawrence County, Mo., has two UAS devices, the more expensive of which cost $1300.

Each weighs about two pounds, has four helicopter-type rotors, and is controlled with a remote device utilizing dials and a joy stick. A camera provides video and still photos.

The drones are powered by batteries that last about 10 minutes, but the heavier the load, the faster the batteries run down. Real-time flight data and live camera view can be monitored up to a distance of 300 meters with a Wi-Fi connect to a mobile device.

Wiebold’s Phantom 2 has a top speed of about 30 miles per hour.

The agronomist will use the devices to scout fields and expand the informational potential of his research projects.

“There is information in your fields and pastures that remote sensing can help you extract,” Wiebold said.

Equipped with appropriate sensors, drones can be capable of recognizing plant diseases, sprayer overlap, crop condition, forage height and a host of other situations.

“It might be as simple as counting your cows,” Wiebold said. “It gives you a perspective not hindered by roads and fences or other obstacles.”

Many of the drone uses can be accomplished with traditional aircraft or satellite but at far greater cost. Currently, lists a UAV drone quadcopter with GoPro camera for only $479. There are hobby-grade drones even cheaper and, of course, the sky really is the limit on the upside.

unmanned aircraft over their own property, under the guidelines of radio-controlled model aircraft.

There are limitations. They have to fly under 700 feet — considered unnavigable airspace for regular aircraft — and keep a distance of about three miles from airports but, generally, there are few rules to follow.

That’s expected to change, perhaps drastically, because when the regulations were written, no one had a clue that drones would be coming along in a few decades.

The FAA is expected to submit new regulations governing the use of UAS devices sometime in 2015. Currently, it is not legal to fly drones for commercial purposes.

And then there are the privacy laws. Those are already in place and farmers should keep in mind that neighbors have a reasonable expectation of privacy on their own property, Wiebold explains, adding:

“Just because the unmanned aircraft is flying over your property doesn’t mean that it can ‘see’ beyond your fenceline.”

Various jurisdictions, such as states and counties, can have privacy laws so unmanned aircraft operation may involve dealing with several different agencies.

The UAS devices are not difficult to operate, but it does take time and plenty of practice to employ them effectively, Wiebold said.

“My advice is keep it within sight,” Wiebold said. “The idea of a drone, really, is that it can go beyond line of sight. And in many cases you may want to do that, but at least until you get good at running these things, keep it within sight.”

With the proper app, an iPhone can be used to “see” what the drone sees. Goggles are also available for the operator to view the flight, although “you might want to sit down when you’re wearing them,” Wiebold advised.

The phone app can also display how high and how far away the drone is.

Some drone cameras can embed a GPS location in pictures and, linked to GPS, quadcopter-type devices can hover in a selected location. Some also have a “come home” application.

As for applications for farmers and ranchers, Wiebold had a one word description for the possibilities the use of unmanned aerial devices could hold for agriculture.

“Amazing,” he concluded.