Experts see drones in future for Kansas farmers

07/06/2013 1:56 PM

07/06/2013 1:56 PM

Agriculture and aviation experts at Kansas State University have looked into the future of farming and see an inevitable role for drones in improving profits and productivity.

One of the nation’s few universities involved in the development of unmanned aircraft, Kansas State has devoted resources in its College of Agriculture and its Applied Aviation Research Center to the work for the past several years.

Kurt Barnhart, the center’s executive director, said the research began 2008 with an initial focus on drones as survey tools after the 2007 Greensburg tornado. The potential for their use in agriculture soon became evident, he said.

Barnhart was among faculty members at a recent demonstration in Lindsborg of how drones can help farmers save money in monitoring crops and livestock.

Farmers have traditionally looked for problems in crops by walking entire fields or doing spot checks, which can take hours.

“We can replace a lot of that with unmanned aircrafts,” said Gary Pierzynski, head of the College of Agriculture’s agronomy department. “You can fly an irrigation circle in 10 minutes. You can fly a section of land in 20 minutes.”

The aircraft will allow farmers to map out their fields using infrared imagery to detect how the crop is growing. Areas pictured in green show a healthy crop, while darker, redder areas show plant stress, possibly from lower nitrogen in the soil or maybe pests.

Instead of spraying the entire crop, farmers can pinpoint troubled areas and treat them accordingly.

For livestock producers, drones can replace the time and expense of driving into pastures to count animals and check pond levels, agronomy professor Kevin Price said. He also sees them as useful for feedlots in monitoring feed bunkers and consumption.

“These are not spy devices,” Price said. “Farmers are going to love these drones. In essence, it will make them better managers, better farmers. It will save them on chemicals and help them make more money.”

Bret Chilcott, who operates AGEagle out of Neodesha, expects his fledgling company to begin selling unmanned aircraft to farmers by next month. They'll be priced at less than $7,000, he said.

“We’ve been working with K-State for the past year,” he said, adding that the technology he is developing will allow farmers to download imagery within 20 minutes.

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