My current practical take on drones in Ag (Q1-2018)
Drones have been rapidly evolving over the past few years and it has been pretty exciting, to say the least. They can be adapted to so many industries and they can make an impact large or small. I have had the privilege to own a DJI Phantom 4 Pro now for almost a year and I have learned a lot. Here is my take on the current affordable drone tech and it’s practical uses on the farm.
At first, like most first-time drone users, I had planned on flying all of our fields multiple times a year and making all kinds of maps and data points to make sense of everything happening in the field. Then reality set in and that is simply unrealistic with today’s drones that are affordable like the DJI Phantom 4 Pro. It can be done but you need a lot of time, a very expensive drone, and some very serious computing power. No farmer has the time or money for that.
If you want to map the way to go is to use DroneDeploy for sure. DroneDeploy (DD) has a very easy user interface that anyone can use and if you have a DJI Phantom you can plan your missions right in the app or you can preplan using their website before heading out to the field. DD isn’t just limited to Ag, with your subscription you have access to all kinds of other professional features. One of the pain points of mapping is actually creating the map and DD is cloud base and can handle the task pretty efficiently but a major pinch point for us rural folk is our internet speed. It can take a long time if you have a lot of pictures to upload. Good thing that DD recognizes that and has created a solution called Live Map. Live Map can create maps real-time and with false NDVI. It’s not perfect but it does a pretty damn good job of building it real time right on the iPad.
Another great use for DD, when mapping, is the use of elevation data. For example, this past spring we had a couple big rains early on so I took advantage of this for later use. I flew the drone over the areas with standing water for 1 to build a map of water damage for replanting/insurance evidence and for 2 to use the elevation map to help plan out where/how to install tile. Using the map for tiling alone pays for the cost of the drone/DD from increasing the productivity of the areas that are prone to water damage.
Drones are truly great aides for mid to late season scouting of corn to gain a different visual and perspective. Now, I’m not talking about putting the drone up for every field that you scout but let me give a few examples from this past year. A hand full of our fields in a particular area had some big gust of wind come through and damaged some neighboring pivots and caused some green snap. After doing some initial green snap damage counts I put the drone up in the air and discovered that other areas received more damage in the field. I snapped a few pictures and then directed the insurance adjuster to the best areas to get the most accurate claim possible. The next example is a long-standing battle with a relentless and nasty weed call bur-cucumber. We get this nasty weed in the same fields every year and on occasion, it might pop up in a new one. Roundup smokes this weed easily but the issue is it will germinate and grow even when the corn is 5-6 feet tall. If you don’t kill it, it will grow up the corn and pull it down flat to the ground making the corn unharvestable. So we have to call a helicopter in every year to spray a herbicide which is a very expensive application cost. This is where the drone comes into play. I will put the drone up to scout and take pictures of the bur-cucumber to see where and when it reaches the canopy in order to be the most efficient with our helicopter application to keep our cost as low as possible. We didn’t miss any weeds and it saved us a lot of money.
Drones, like the phantom, have great cameras on them which make them great for taking pictures or video around the farm for fun. I kept the drone in the truck with me while tendering fertilizer or scouting and would put the drone up to get some field action shots. Check out my youtube channel for some videos I made, I am currently editing two new ones now and they might be up when this gets posted. I am definitely an amateur at videography and editing but I’m getting better at it. Drones are also handy for other odd jobs like inspecting a grain leg or flying ditches to check for beaver dams.
Some companies that I am keeping my eye on future drone tech are American Robotics, DJI, Yuneec, Sentera, and Drone Deploy. I am really interested in the drone autonomy company American Robotics, their platform would solve the time requirement issue but I’m sure it comes at a high cost. I believe their platform could turn into something much greater and I have a few ideas of my own on where it could go.
So if you are wondering if a drone is worth the investment for the farm, in my opinion, they are. But, like most things, it is only going to if you put in the effort and make something of it.