UAVs Prove Useful to First-Time Farm Fliers

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PAAS_aerial _ins (1)The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, offers much more than military applications or a thrill for technology enthusiasts.

Farmers last week at the Precision Aerial Ag Show in Decatur demonstrated and discussed the value of taking crop scouting methods to new heights with various models of remotely operated aircraft.

“We bought (a UAV) primarily for scouting purposes -- my knees aren’t what they used to be -- and it’s lived up to that,” said Matt Hughes, a farmer from Shirley, who purchased his first drone in January. Hughes said he now can scout a field with mile-long rows in a matter of minutes with his UAV. “The data is what it’s all about,” Hughes said. “(The drone) costs a lot less than a four-wheeler and it fits in my backseat.”

UAVs range in price from a few thousand dollars to well into five figures. But most farmers can get started with a UAV that provides quality images of their fields for $2,000 to $4,000.

“The cost is not terribly expensive and you can do a lot of things (with a UAV),” said Chad Colby, an ag consultant who spoke at the show. “This technology is very user-friendly. Anybody can do this.”

Judy Graff, a farmer from Middletown, purchased a UAV this year for crop scouting. She said a $15 investment for propeller guards protected the craft from any rookie mistakes during her first flights with it.  “We used it this spring,” Graff said. “We had some heavy rains, and we wanted to see how some new waterways and terraces held up.”

Matt Boucher, a farmer from Dwight, also purchased his first UAV this year and already gained tremendous value with a bird’s-eye view of his fields. “We used it to assess winter damage to our wheat fields and, because of the use of our UAV, we decided to tear it (wheat) up and put in corn,” Boucher said. “We recently had a windstorm that knocked corn down,” he continued. “Instead of walking the fields for hours and hours, within minutes we got a really good handle on how much damage we had (via UAV images).”

Farmers can fly UAVs over their fields as a hobby and not above 400 feet per Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. UAVs currently can’t be used for professional scouting recommendations or any other farm use which requires an exchange of money.

“It’s a good example of how our regulations hold us back, not the technology,” Hughes said. “We have the technology (to expand crop scouting services with UAVs).”

The drones run on batteries and have the ability to fly for 20 to 30-plus minutes at a time. Battery life typically isn’t an issue as farm hobbyist fliers establish flight plans and can scout an 80-acre field in about 10 minutes, according to Boucher. “If (a UAV) runs out (of power), it slowly lands itself,” Boucher said. “It doesn’t just stop and fall from the sky.”

Farmers who lose a ship in a field simply can dial a cellphone number to get a fix on the position.

Some farmers insure their UAVs while others do not, typically depending on the level of investment for each craft, according to members of the farmer panel at the Precision Aerial Ag Show.

Content provided by Dan Grant, FarmWeek

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