Thursday, January 10, 2013

Up, Up and Away: Unmanned Drone Aircraft Uses in Agriculture

Many times certain innovations used in warfare can be adapted for peacetime use. That is the case of unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs. Farmers around the world are using this ttechnology to improve their growing methods.

I think most of us are familiar with unmanned drone aircraft. Frequently on the national news programs we hear about unmanned drones taking out terrorists throughout the Middle East. They have become a valuable asset in the war on terrorism without putting our servicemen or women in harm's way.

As with many other military "tools" these are now being adapted for peacetime use. Did you know that Teflon was the initially used in NASA space programs? The GPS found in many cars today was developed for military use. Drones are following the same path, showing their value for civilian purposes.

Just a few years ago, it would seem more like something out of a bad sci-fi film. But today, the possibility of an unmanned aerial vehicle floating over a farm taking pictures or video is a reality.

There are several applications being developed. The simplest one is crop scouting. You could use a simple system like a rotary UAV. The farmer can stand at the side of the field and get a bird's eye view. There are huge advantages here because right now a farmer can only see a small fraction of the field. If you see a problem, you get a picture of it and know exactly where it is.
The next application is mapping. You can use a fixed-wing UAV and you actually map the field creating an up-to- date digital map of the field. This allows the farmer to look at nutrient issues to develop an application plan and, technically, we could probably use precision spot spraying.

Drone Scouting a vineyard
 In the future, we could see other applications including pollination and disease prediction.
The systems can operate anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour at a time and can fly up to 15 miles away from the operator, though regulations prohibit them from leaving the sight of the operator.

Fixed Wing Drone

The automation of farming has led to fewer farmers tending massive plots of land. That means they don't know how each leaf looks, notice changes in the height of plants, or the color of soil.
Once upon a time farms were small and people could walk the farm, now, however, farms are too big to measure and too big to manage without technology. A farmer could use an UAV to pinpoint damage to crops early on. Early signs of plant damage show up in chlorophyll, the energy-making machinery in plants. This damage changes how the plant appears in infrared images, which could be captured in drone aircraft imagery.
More precise imagery could also allow farmers to target pesticides just to the plants that need them, reducing how much ends up in the food supply.
Rotary Drone
There are UAV's available to fit almost any farmer's budget. A farmer could put together a system for as little as $1,500. The professional grade systems for agricultural use are $10,000. A military grade UAV system can cost $35,000.
Many in the agricultural industry view drone use as a way to increase safety, especially when replacing hazardous ground spraying rigs on sloping farmland. Drone fertilizer and pesticide application is also quicker and may be more cost-efficient, according to the Western Farm Press.
As with anything the government has a hand in the FAA has been slow in adapting regulations for UAV's.They are expected to adopt new regulations for drone use in 2015, which could possibly include agricultural applications. If drones become an agricultural equipment alternative, then agricultural equipment manufacturers could face competition from aerospace manufacturers. -
If you happen to be driving through farm country and something whizzes by overhead don't be alarmed; it's just a farmer checking out his crops.

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