For centuries, farmers have braved the elements to walk their land to check for problems ranging from wind damage and calving cows to pests and predators.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) may save farmers time and money with bird’s-eye views of farmland, says Bob Schultheis, a natural resource engineering specialist with University of Missouri Extension in Webster County.

Schultheis addressed the use of drones at the recent Greene County Soils and Crops Conference at the Springfield Livestock Marketing Center.

Drones suited for farm applications vary widely in cost and size. Entry-level aircraft cost $500-$1,500 and can fly for 10-20 minutes without recharging batteries. Most weigh less than 5 pounds, have a wingspan of less than 3 feet and travel under 30 mph. For about $300, farmers can install cameras in drones that can send clear still or video images to a smartphone.

Drones can provide information to answer questions like “How bad was last night’s hail storm? Are all of my cows on the north 40? Does my corn need more nitrogen?”

Entry-level systems can be guided by a handheld remote control. More sophisticated vehicles can be programmed to fly designated routes using GPS and GIS technology.

“The uses are as varied as Missouri farmland. Entomologists may find the devices especially helpful for scouting of pests. Drones can collect information on plants that have grown to heights that make it difficult to walk through narrow rows,” said Schultheis.

Farmers could even use the unmanned devices to document conditions when applying for government programs such as crop insurance.

“While much of the recent media attention has centered on unmanned aircraft as a way to deliver packages, commercial agriculture may be the largest beneficiary of drone technology,” said Schultheis.

Drone technology has raised concerns about privacy issues, but drones used in agriculture likely are less controversial than those used for commercial applications. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not allow drone use for commercial purposes. Farmers must follow FAA guidelines for hobbyists.

Unmanned aircraft are restricted to airspace no higher than 400 feet. If flights occur within 3 miles of an airport, airport officials must be notified. Recent information suggests producers are permitted to fly over areas they farm.

Schultheis suggests that until a farmer gains confidence and skill, drones should be kept within line of sight. Winds of 20 mph or greater may present problems with stability and image quality.

In 2012, Congress directed the FAA to grant unmanned aircraft access to U.S. skies by 2015. The FAA has released a “road map” for potential drone use and six federally designated test sites have been approved.

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