drones mapping crops wealth information

On-farm remote sensing will be more valuable in the future

Having finished an abbreviated interview with a Virginia grower early one afternoon — as he scurried about trying to harvest some corn before more rains came, I decided to drive out to Land of Promise Farms, site for the annual Virginia Ag Expo, which was set for the next morning.

As I turned onto the farm road leading to the Expo site, I noticed what I first thought to be a strange looking bird. Next, I thought maybe it was an ultra-light aircraft, farther away than I first thought. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be an over-sized toy helicopter that hovered and then moved away from various spots in a waist-high field of soybeans.

Other late afternoon passersby on Land of Promise Road seemed equally intrigued by the strange looking aircraft, as several had pulled their vehicles to the side of the road to watch as the small, pilot-less aircraft darted about up and down and across the field.

Rolling down the window of my car to take a closer look, it was the buzzing sound that brought back a previous encounter with one of these machines. I was in North Queensland, Australia looking at cotton in an area the Aussies call ‘the table tops’. A PCACC, or professional certified agriculture crop consultant, was ‘buzzing,’ as he later told me a cotton field to determine whether the crop was ready for defoliation.

I filed that afternoon in Australia away for future use, thinking this technology could certainly benefit farmers in the U.S. That was nearly 10 years ago and there still seems to be little, if any, use of this technology in the Southeast.

Snapping back from my distant memories of my 23 days in Australia and New Zealand, I watched from my roadside view as the odd looking aircraft glided back toward a large tent that I deemed to be part of the next day’s Virginia Agriculture Expo and the most likely location of the person controlling the drone.

The next day I had a chance to visit with Jim Owen, a relatively new assistant professor and agriculture researcher at Virginia Tech. Owen and a research colleague Joe Mari Maja, from the University of Florida, had mapped the soybean field the previous day and showed an interested audience of farmers, agricultural Extension workers and crop consultants the high resolution photos taken by what I now know was a drone.

In about 30 minutes the drone had mapped a 100 acre or so field of soybeans, providing a wealth of information about the crop. Had there been problems, like insect or disease damage in the field, I’m sure the high resolution photographs taken by the drone would have exposed them without anyone having to trudge through the waist-high field of beans.

 

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Uses seem endless

The uses for drones for agriculture seem to be endless. Maja and his research colleagues in Reza Ehsani’s program at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Florida use the drone to scout for citrus trees infected with citrus greening.

Citrus greening is vectored by a tiny insect and has cost the Florida industry billions of dollars during its decade or so time of destruction. Use of drones is but one of many high tech strategies used to try and offset the damage the disease is costing throughout citrus producing areas of the world.

After talking with Owen and Maja for a while, my big question was why aren’t drones more widely used in agriculture in the Southeast?

Lewis Smith is an Extension County Coordinator in Perquimans County in northeast North Carolina and was among the visitors watching the drone fly at the Virginia Ag Expo. I asked Lewis what he thought about the potential for using drones to scout crops in the V-C area.

“Based on the discussion at the Virginia Expo, price is probably somewhat prohibitive. I would think that some of the larger consultants might adopt this technology in the not too distant future. It would be helpful for identifying weak areas in fields so the consultant and/or producer could go to that area and determine corrective action.” Smith says. 

“If drones are able to use infrared photography, I think that would be a real plus. It would be great if the photography is sharp enough to identify insect infestations. You could target, kudzu bugs and stink bugs, which tend to infest some areas of fields in higher concentrations than other parts of the same field,” he adds.

Cost of drones and questions over FAA regulations for flying the machines over private or public land may be the primary reasons, but there seems to be way too much apathy on the part of agriculture over using this technology. 

For example, in the Southeast, the University of Florida and Virginia Tech University are the only two Land-Grant universities among the 65 or so entities licensed by the FAA to fly drones.

As farms get to be larger and larger and farmers get to be fewer and fewer, this kind of remote sensing for crop production data is surely going to be more valuable. The technology is here, and it shouldn’t be one we sit back for another decade and largely ignore.

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