Michigan Farm News

Flying by the seat of your laptop

Category: Technology

by Paul W. Jackson

drone
The ag industry is expected to be the largest user of developing drone technology.

Farmers don't have to fly higher than the rest of society, but they do.

It's not their fault that low-flying perceptions, at least in the marketing world, seem more important than reality. Farmers just endure, smile when portrayed as simple-minded folk whose backs are more important than their brains, and move on to cutting-edge technology that's far above common perception.

It won't be long until they're once again using technology that's – for the time being – beyond the reach of the general public.

It's happened with genetics and embryo transfers. It's happened with GPS systems, and it's happened with auto-steer systems. It's about to happen with drones.

"There is no doubt that the future of farming is in unmanned aerial systems (UAS)," said Ben Gielow, government relations manager and general counsel with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) in Arlington, Virginia. "I see the day when, even without the farmer's daily input, that a drone will take off, collect data from the field, tell the (on-ground implement) what it needs to do, and it will make that targeted application of herbicides, pesticides or fertilizer. Farmers will continue to be less engaged in the act of farming and more engaged in managing technology."

It's not just the big guys who will do this, either. The advantages of drone technology are only beginning to be fleshed out for all farmers seeking increased efficiency.

"It's been interesting," said Pat Lohman, Chief Operating Officer of Precision Hawk, a Toronto-based company that's been developing drone technology since 2010. "We had a handful of applications that we knew would be useful for agriculture, but when we started talking to farmers and started to know their needs and discuss them, they started sending us new ideas for applications on a daily basis."

At this point, Lohman said, his company is focusing on field scouting applications.

"The advantage of our (drone) platform is not only in catching disease or pest problems, but catching them early," he said. "We're also looking at other airborne applications such as picking up pollen so we can learn what we haven't known before."

In Michigan, Star of the West Milling in the Thumb has purchased a Sense Fly-brand device and will test it this summer, said Keith Martus, sales manager with the company.

"We see it as being very useful in our scouting program," Martus said. "We want to use it to enhance our research in regard to test plots and disease scouting. There's a steep learning curve, and we need to get familiar with it. We've bought the tool, now we need to find out where it fits."

Unfortunately, drone technology won't fit individual farms for a year or more.

"Right now," Gielow said, "the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits all commercial use of unmanned aircraft. It's illegal for commercial purposes, including farming. The FAA only allows public entities to get approval to fly in air space, and public universities are considered public entities, so MSU could apply for a waiver, as long as drone use is tied to academic research."

Gielow said there are exemptions for model airplane operators, but those exemptions are interpreted in various ways until the FAA establishes safety rules.

"A farmer might make the argument that if he uses a drone to take pictures to help him make decisions, that's not his business. His business is growing and selling crops," he said. "So is using a UAS a commercial purpose? There are a lot of gray areas, and they will continue to be gray until the FAA decides who can use them when it issues safety rules."

The FAA, Gielow said, has two deadlines to meet for establishing rules. The first is August of 2014, and the other is September 2015.

While U.S. farmers wait, the technology is in use elsewhere. Gielow said Yamaha has developed a drone that's been in use in Japan for 20 years.

"Eighty percent of Japan's spraying is done by a radio-controlled helicopter," he said. "They have some very hilly country and relatively small rice paddies. They can fill tanks on the drone with 20-30 pounds of pesticides and do a couple acres in 10 minutes where it would take a tractor two hours."

North American technology hasn't yet developed aerial drone sprayers, but it won't take long if it's in demand. Drones can be much more precise than ground sprayers, targeting specific, individual weeds, but for now, it's enough that a drone can identify, in a very short time, where there are specific needs for fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, water and many other things that haven't been thought of yet.

In the end, Precision Hawk's Lohman said, the potential savings in spray applications due to the drones' precision could pay for the device in just two flights, although he would not reveal prices due to competitive concerns.
Such potential savings, however, are enough to make farmers start pushing their pencils, Gielow said.

"Farmers' eyes light up when we talk about this," he said. "If they can buy a unit and all the software for, say, $50,000, they can make that back in one growing season with increased yields, fewer pesticides and fuel savings. It also has environmental advantages in stopping runoff into streams."

Presently, Lohman said, farmers need a laptop to program the drones and receive data, but he said the day is not too far away when farmers can get the drone's information on their smart phones while in the tractor.

Of course, time in the tractor could be reduced by the technology too. All of which leaves more time for farmers to manage their crops with better information, provided on-demand as often as they wish.

Call it a flight of fancy if you must, but it won't be long until farmers take the next step and fly by the seat of their computers.

Connect with Precision Hawk on Twitter @PrecisionHawk.