Farm drones expected to take off

2015-09-08

Farm drones expected to take off
Every week, an agronomist walks a portion of the 600 acres of crops at the Sunrise Acres dairy to gather information used to fight pests, weeds and other maladies that could threaten the harvest.

It’s a labor-intensive process repeated at farms throughout Wisconsin, and it’s one farmers say could soon become vastly more efficient thanks to drone technology.

Farmers, including Sunrise Acres co-owner Dan Mullikin, say that in the coming years, drones equipped with cameras and other sensors could become a standard tool for surveying crops, among a host of other agricultural uses.

“Right now, they (agronomists) literally walk the fields. With something like this, you could fly over the fields, take pictures, take it back to the office and analyze it,” said Mullikin, a second-generation dairy farmer who tends to about 180 milk cows at his dairy. “It’s a way to catch problems sooner.”

Mullikan’s farm hosted a University of Wisconsin-Extension Sheboygan County meeting on agriculture drones in late August that attracted 70 people wanting to learn more about the technology.

Interest has been building among farmers since last year, when the Federal Aviation Administration started permitting businesses to fly drones commercially on a case-by-case basis.
she b Agriculture and Drones.

80 percent of drone use

The Federal Aviation Administration has now approved more than 50 exemptions for farm-related operations since January, and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, estimates that agriculture could eventually account for 80 percent of all commercial drone use.

While drones have yet to be put into use at farms in Sheboygan and Manitowoc counties, local agriculture experts expect the technology to become commonplace at larger acreage farms over the next decade.

“Interest among farmers is very high,” said Mike Ballweg, an agricultural agent for the UW-Extension. “I think it’s a technology that as it’s refined, it’s going to pay off.”

Ballweg said that relative to other industries, agriculture is an easy fit for drones, as most farms are in sparsely populated areas, which presents fewer privacy concerns with neighbors.

Meanwhile, the technology appears to be a clear money saver on the farm, as it would allow farmers and crop consultants to quickly diagnose and respond to a host of issues affecting crop production, such as drainage problems, pests, plant diseases, soil compaction and erosion.

The small, relatively inexpensive vehicles could eventually be used to transmit detailed information about crops to combines and sprayers, directing them to problem spots and cutting down on the amount of water and chemicals a farmer needs to use in those areas.

“Imagine walking a 100-acre field and trying to cover all of it,” said Zach Fiene, co-owner of DMZ Aerial in Prairie du Sac. “If you can get up in the air 200 feet, you can see the entire field, and it takes you 2 seconds. And, you can see where the problems are, and you can walk right to them.”

Farmers are primary customers

DMZ Aerial offers commercial drone systems, including software, specifically outfitted for farmers, ranging in price from $3,500 to $5,000.

Fiene, who presented during the UW-Extension event at Mullikan’s farm last month, said the company’s products are now in use in 15 states, and agronomists — who assist farmers in caring for crops and soil — are their primary customers.

Steve Hoffman, managing agronomist at In-Depth Agronomy, which provides consulting services to farmers in Manitowoc and Sheboygan counties, projects that his firm will begin using drones within the next year.

The company utilizes high-resolution photos taken by airplane in its day-to-day operations, but drones would provide instant results, albeit at lower resolutions.

“The difference with a (drone) is you could get imagery quicker, like in that same day,” Hoffman said. “It will allow for quick decision making on things.”

Receiving an FAA exemption takes between 60 to 180 days, and it’s good for two years.

Meanwhile, the FAA is now working on rules that would allow the drones to be used regularly for business while maintaining certain safety and privacy standards. An FAA proposal would allow flight of the vehicles as long as they weigh less than 55 pounds, stay within the operator’s sight and fly during the daytime, among other restrictions.

Operators would have to pass an FAA test of aeronautical knowledge and a Transportation Security Administration background check.

As the FAA drops more restrictions on the commercial use of drones, Fiene expects the technology to proliferate.

At Surnise Acres, Mullikin figures the technology will eventually become necessary to stay competitive.

“Farms are growing in size and acreage, but we’re thin on labor,” he said.
Every week, an agronomist walks a portion of the 600 acres of crops at the Sunrise Acres dairy to gather information used to fight pests, weeds and other maladies that could threaten the harvest.

It’s a labor-intensive process repeated at farms throughout Wisconsin, and it’s one farmers say could soon become vastly more efficient thanks to drone technology.

Farmers, including Sunrise Acres co-owner Dan Mullikin, say that in the coming years, drones equipped with cameras and other sensors could become a standard tool for surveying crops, among a host of other agricultural uses.

“Right now, they (agronomists) literally walk the fields. With something like this, you could fly over the fields, take pictures, take it back to the office and analyze it,” said Mullikin, a second-generation dairy farmer who tends to about 180 milk cows at his dairy. “It’s a way to catch problems sooner.”

Mullikan’s farm hosted a University of Wisconsin-Extension Sheboygan County meeting on agriculture drones in late August that attracted 70 people wanting to learn more about the technology.

Interest has been building among farmers since last year, when the Federal Aviation Administration started permitting businesses to fly drones commercially on a case-by-case basis.
she b Agriculture and Drones.

80 percent of drone use

The Federal Aviation Administration has now approved more than 50 exemptions for farm-related operations since January, and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, estimates that agriculture could eventually account for 80 percent of all commercial drone use.

While drones have yet to be put into use at farms in Sheboygan and Manitowoc counties, local agriculture experts expect the technology to become commonplace at larger acreage farms over the next decade.

“Interest among farmers is very high,” said Mike Ballweg, an agricultural agent for the UW-Extension. “I think it’s a technology that as it’s refined, it’s going to pay off.”

Ballweg said that relative to other industries, agriculture is an easy fit for drones, as most farms are in sparsely populated areas, which presents fewer privacy concerns with neighbors.

Meanwhile, the technology appears to be a clear money saver on the farm, as it would allow farmers and crop consultants to quickly diagnose and respond to a host of issues affecting crop production, such as drainage problems, pests, plant diseases, soil compaction and erosion.

The small, relatively inexpensive vehicles could eventually be used to transmit detailed information about crops to combines and sprayers, directing them to problem spots and cutting down on the amount of water and chemicals a farmer needs to use in those areas.

“Imagine walking a 100-acre field and trying to cover all of it,” said Zach Fiene, co-owner of DMZ Aerial in Prairie du Sac. “If you can get up in the air 200 feet, you can see the entire field, and it takes you 2 seconds. And, you can see where the problems are, and you can walk right to them.”

Farmers are primary customers

DMZ Aerial offers commercial drone systems, including software, specifically outfitted for farmers, ranging in price from $3,500 to $5,000.

Fiene, who presented during the UW-Extension event at Mullikan’s farm last month, said the company’s products are now in use in 15 states, and agronomists — who assist farmers in caring for crops and soil — are their primary customers.

Steve Hoffman, managing agronomist at In-Depth Agronomy, which provides consulting services to farmers in Manitowoc and Sheboygan counties, projects that his firm will begin using drones within the next year.

The company utilizes high-resolution photos taken by airplane in its day-to-day operations, but drones would provide instant results, albeit at lower resolutions.

“The difference with a (drone) is you could get imagery quicker, like in that same day,” Hoffman said. “It will allow for quick decision making on things.”

Receiving an FAA exemption takes between 60 to 180 days, and it’s good for two years.

Meanwhile, the FAA is now working on rules that would allow the drones to be used regularly for business while maintaining certain safety and privacy standards. An FAA proposal would allow flight of the vehicles as long as they weigh less than 55 pounds, stay within the operator’s sight and fly during the daytime, among other restrictions.

Operators would have to pass an FAA test of aeronautical knowledge and a Transportation Security Administration background check.

As the FAA drops more restrictions on the commercial use of drones, Fiene expects the technology to proliferate.

At Surnise Acres, Mullikin figures the technology will eventually become necessary to stay competitive.

“Farms are growing in size and acreage, but we’re thin on labor,” he said.



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