Growers anticipate dawn of drone era

Staff Reporter

QUEENSTOWN, Md. — This is how Tom Eberle sees one corner of farming’s future: A drone sleeps out in the field waiting for a signal from its owner, who sips a cup of coffee yards, maybe miles away.
The owner grabs a controller or a computer and sends the drone a series of coordinates outlining a field of crops.
The drone switches on, motor whirring, rises to its designated elevation and soars over the crops, taking photos with an infrared camera, before they are stored on a batch of servers to be analyzed.
From that data — terabytes of heavy data — farmers will be able to analyze a field for issues such as crop stress, soil moisture, pest infestation and more.
“That’s something we can look for in the future,” said Eberle, owner of Airlytics, a Maryland aerial imaging company, before a group of growers and precision agriculture professionals Wednesday.
The group was there for the University of Maryland Extension’s Mid-Atlantic Precision Agriculture Equipment Day at the Wye Research & Education Center.
The event was organized to show growers how precision ag equipment, including drones, can improve profits and efficiency.
Attendees listened to John Nowatzki, an agricultural machine systems specialist at North Dakota State University, who outlined a future for the aerial machines where growers — or contractors working for growers — will fly them over crops looking at plant population, nutrient deficiency, disease, weed and pest infestations and moisture stress, among other issues.
Livestock farmers would be able to keep counts from the air and possibly even identify troublesome “rogue” cattle.
Photos from crop flights will need to be stored on servers — they’re too large for home computers — and analyzed for results, he said.
“The biggest issue we have to deal with is the quantity of data,” Nowatzki said.
Agricultural drones are making an impact elsewhere, he said.
They’re already spraying pesticide on half of Japan’s rice, which often grows in trouble areas such as the side of mountains, which can be difficult to access, he said.
But a major complication in the United States has been drones’ regulation at the federal level.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently said that hobbyists could fly drones legally.
However, those using them for commercial purposes — including farming — could not.
Some have disputed that interpretation.
Regardless, the FAA has received petitions from the agricultural, film and energy industries to pass new regulations allowing for commercial drone use and observers expect that to happen within the next year.
Greg Williams, a farmer from Hebron, Md., said he’s waiting to see some of those issues resolved.
The price of the drones, which range from anywhere between $1,500 to $50,000 or more, would most likely be high for a small farmer.
“I might buy one just to play with it and see what I might be able to do with it,” he said after the group watched a drone flight demonstration.
Raymond Harrison Jr., an Easton, Md., farmer, said he could see crop scouters adopting the technology first.
“I definitely think they’ll have a place, but there’s a lot of factors to sift out,” he said.
Tellus Agronomics, a Radiant, Va., company, has sold its AgriEye Drone package, which costs more than $7,000, to clients in its state, company consultant Dustin Madison said.
“I think [farmers at the event] like them,” he said. “It’s going to give them an opportunity to make better decisions. ... You can’t walk 40 acres. But you can fly that thing over your field in five minutes.”
William Layton, a Vienna, Md., farmer said he’s not sure how enthusiastic growers are to using them in his area.
“Around us there’s not a lot of buzz about it yet,” he said.