Drones becoming a necessity for ag

AFP Correspondent

ATLANTIC CITY (March 15, 2017) — A daylong series of panels at the New Jersey Agricultural Convention and Trade Show were devoted to the growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, for agricultural purposes.
Rutgers University plant biology and pathology professor Peter Oudemans discussed using drones for pest control and fine-tuning production methods while Eric Koehler, vice president of Bridgewater-based Falcon Drone Services, discussed the pros and cons of owning and operating a drone.
Oudemans made an analogy at the outset of his talk between drones and cell phones.
Cell phones were once thought of as a luxury, but as costs fell over the last 15 years, nearly everyone carries a cell phone.
He predicted that slowly or not, drones will come to be regarded as necessary technology for all manner of farmers.
“With drones, what we’re seeing is we’re introducing a technology that is going to help with efficiency,” Oudemans said. “It’s not going to replace our footprints in the field, but it’s going to enhance our scouting methods.”
In his presentation, Oudemans demonstrated the valuable information that drones can pick up in surveying a field of blueberries or any kind of vegetable, including measuring soil moisture and heat dispersion in a field.
This kind of data could also be obtained via satellite images, but drones fly low enough to avoid cloud coverings over fields.
Using color images the farmer can pick out healthy plants from overhead drone photographs, all of which are digital and this data can be useful after fertilizer applications or irrigation.
“In treating particular diseases, drones can provide information that would be very hard to get in any other way,” Oudemans said.
He then offered examples from an orchard of peach trees, noting peach blossom detection can be very useful, “from a disease management point of view, the flow of a bloom through an orchard can be very useful. And these are the kinds of things we can start to identify, using drones,” he said.
He displayed other color images of a tomato farm, noting “it’s very easy to detect the loss of these plants, and you can also measure such things as soil radiation with drones. You can track where the energy from the sun is going.
“We’re looking at ways we can be using drones to do more efficient scouting by being able to go right to a problem area,” he said, “to improve efficiency with applications and to improve irrigation management.”
Koehler, a certified pilot and former flight instructor who worked with the FAA for 12 years, serves as vice-president of the Bridgewater-based Falcon Drone Services.
Along with vegetable and livestock farms, he said UAV’s are useful in real estate, video mapping, golf courses, parks and engineering work.
An engineering company recently bought Koehler’s company, so he stressed he has no vested interest in selling drone services or drones to the farmers gathered there.
“For the farmer ultimately, it’s all about optimizing yield, and minimizing the inputs and maximizing outputs,” Koehler said. “You want a drone to be able to go out and fly a mission so you can see  trends.
“If you’ve got a drone that is flying a precise mission, repeatedly, you’re going to get precise repeatable data capture for comparative purposes, and you want timely, precise monitoring.”
Thanks to rapid advances in GPS-related technologies, Koehler said, farmers can now use drones they own or drones they’ve leased to “administer your pesticides, your fertilizers, your irrigation at variable rates at variable locations, so that it’s not all just spray it everywhere, drop it everywhere.”
Koehler said drones come in all shapes and sizes and price levels depending on the level of sophistication required.
He said prices can range from $1,000 to $3,000 and much more elaborate flying machines can fetch $20,000 and $25,000.
What’s more, Koehler said, “we’re looking at putting additional sensors on drones that can cost about $100,000. I’ve said to my pilots, I’m not flying those things! I’m staying in the office and drinking heavily while you fly it.”
They can be programmed to be fast and efficient, Koehler added.
The farmer can walk out of his or her house, push a button and “have the drone fly a mission programmed from your kitchen table.”
Drones can even do spot planting now and there are types that can operate a sprayer, carrying two or three gallons of pesticide, “so we can not only measure and detect, we can also apply on a spot basis.”
Using repeat missions to get time lapse images, farmers can spot problems in the fields and orchards before they become severe, he added.
On the plus side of owning a drone, Koehler said “you have data privacy and security. Maybe you don’t want anybody knowing everything about your crop. And maybe it’s fun, too, you like operating these things that fly.”
If a farmer chooses to purchase a drone or several drones, insurance should be something to consider, Koehler said.
“You’ve also got to understand the laws if you as a farmer are using a drone in your business, you are a commercial operator. You’ve got to study for an online test and study for it every two years,” he said. Another factor to consider, valid for most farmers, is the time one needs to invest in setting up, programming and maintaining a drone.
“Either you’re the pilot or you’re going to hire someone to be the pilot. There is a benefit to hiring out.  If you do it yourself you have to pay the upfront costs rather than pay a monthly fee,” he said.
Regarding disadvantages to outsourcing and hiring a drone service, Koehler said farmers lose a certain amount of control to use the drones where and when they want to.
“On the other hand, the other guy gets to crash his drone,” he said, “and you don’t have to carry spare parts so all of these things are now the other guy’s problem.”
“There are pros and cons, so it’s up to the individual farmer to figure out where he fits in this spectrum of risk.”