Drones exist in the popular imagination largely as unmanned planes that search for enemy combatants — and kill them.
But soon drones will be contributing to the sustenance of life by helping farmers produce more per acre at less cost and with less damage to the environment.
Images and data from drones can tell farmers almost instantaneously what parts of fields need more water or fertilizer and what parts need pesticide. That kind of “precision agriculture” saves growers the time and money involved with blanket treatments.
The civilian market for drones will include real estate surveys, resource exploration and entertainment.
But “ag is really the low-hanging fruit,” said Curtis Moore, a managing partner with Apis Remote Sensing Systems, a drone operator and dealer in Hays, Kan.
Widespread use of drones down on the farm, however, awaits final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has the responsibility of maintaining safety in the skies. New rules were proposed in February and could be finalized before next summer.
The market for drones is not waiting.
More than 300 exemptions from the current rule have been approved by the FAA, including three in Missouri and seven in Kansas. Drone startups are springing up everywhere, and finding buyers.
Apis in western Kansas not only sells drones but, because it has an exemption, is already offering its services to farmers.
“There are a lot of folks that are wanting to use this and use it now,” Moore said. “Farmers are hungry for this technology.”
Apis is a dealer for drones made by AgEagle, another startup in Neodesha in southeastern Kansas. It makes a fixed-wing drone.
“We made it possible for even a person with no flying experience to launch the aircraft, fly the mission and get the images processed and in their hands while they’re waiting in the field,” said Tom Nichol, director of business development for AgEagle. “It puts the farmer’s eyes in the sky.”
Drones can take regular images of fields below, giving farmers visual clues about the health of their crops without having to walk the entire acreage. They can also use near infrared imagery to detect the amount of chlorophyl. The more chlorophyl, the healthier the crop.
A series of hundreds of images can be routed through a processor and stitched together to produce a composite that is then sent wirelessly to the operator. The technology is only going to get better.
“Perhaps someday they will be able to scan a field and say, ‘That’s a chinch bug problem,’” said Nichol.
Drones can even be used to take proactive steps. An agriculture student in Queensland, Australia, rigged one to disseminate beneficial insects onto crops.
The FAA is trying to minimize problems that could arise from a swarm of civilian drones buzzing through the air, even in the wide-open spaces of Kansas.
The proposed rules say drones must weigh less than 55 pounds and cannot exceed 100 mph or 500 feet in altitude. They must not be flown over people. The operator must pass an initial written test on aeronautics and be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration.
The commenting period on the proposed rules ended in April. Now the agency is considering the thousands of responses it received.
One rule limits drone operation to line of sight, meaning the operator must be able to see the drone at all times. That could be a drawback for ranchers wanting to check on livestock. Another rule says drones can only be operated during daylight, which would rule out measuring heat signals from crops at night.
The top AgEagle model sells for $15,200, which includes a one-year subscription to the data processing service. The company reports that orders started pouring in when the proposed FAA rules were announced.
“There’s a lot of interest, absolutely,” said Mark Blanks, unmanned aerial systems manager for the Applied Aviation Research Center at Kansas State University-Salina. “What’s not been proven yet is what the return of investment is. What is the value?”
That is also on the mind of Chad Pfitzer of 4 Rivers Equipment in Greeley, Colo. He acknowledges the information provided by drones is valuable but questions whether the technology is reliable or simple enough for farmers.
“These guys are busy,” he said.
But many farmers are convinced drones are worth it.
“People we’ve talked to say to be able to see your field in its entirety in the middle of the growing season is of extremely high value to the farmer,” said Nichol. “They can save thousands of dollars an acre with reduced chemical input.”
Casey Adams is just starting to build a clientele for his Kansas City Drone Co., having given a recent demonstration for a central Missouri farmer with 700 acres.
“Everybody is excited,” Adams said. “It’s pretty early in the game.”
Steve Cubbage is president and owner of Prime Meridian, a precision agriculture company in Nevada, Mo., that advises growers across the Midwest and is incorporating drone technology.
“I bet I get three calls a week from farmers and other agronomists who want to know what drones to buy, what software to buy, how to use it,” Cubbage said. “It just makes sense for the average farmer, of 2,000 acres, to buy this technology. We’ve got a grower base of over 800 and I would say I don’t think there’s one of them that won’t be interested in it.”
Aside from higher crop yields, environmental pluses of drones include the possibility of better controlling water usage and reducing runoff of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides into lakes and streams.
Then there’s the economic benefit. A study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicted that the drone industry would create 100,000 jobs in the United States by 2025 and have an $82 billion economic impact. It forecast that precision agriculture would be the biggest piece of that.
AgEagle has gone from a three-person enterprise three years ago to employing a dozen people, full and part time, in Neodesha.
“That just feels good,” said Nichol. “Plus, it’s in a new technology field right here in the fields of southeast Kansas.”