UAVs: Where’s The Value?

From the rolling fields that dominate the Illinois countryside to the striking Flatiron sandstone formations that seemingly tower over Boulder, CO, there is serious R & D going on right now involving unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and establishing realistic expectations for farming’s flying robots.

“Generically speaking, this is a new tool being applied to agriculture, so we are still learning the best way to actually use them in the field and where return-on-investment is going to come from,” says Paul Hoff, president, Agribotix. “This is our first season in operation, and I think we have some really good guesses that are starting to be proven correct.”

As things stand currently, Hoff shares that his Boulder-based startup has confirmed two areas of current agronomic capabilities.

“One is identifying potential issues up to two to three weeks prior to when you would typically see them pop up in a visual crop inspection,” he says. “Secondly, it’s one of the first low-cost platforms where you can get a good temporal image of a field throughout the evolution of a crop. You get this interactive view of how your fields are developing over time, and you see things that just weren’t available before or would be prohibitively expensive to uncover using manned aircraft.”

Additionally, Hoff envisions being able to variable-rate various crop inputs, as well as compress mountains of data into shockingly accurate yield estimates much earlier than current capabilities allow, although he cautions these competencies are “not quite there yet.”

Meanwhile Agribotix, looking to make major hay as a UAS service provider once FAA begins regulating the technology come late 2015 or early 2016, is currently serving around 100,000 acres of both specialty and row crops for its inaugural season.

“This is a very big data collection season for us to really narrow down for each of the crop types: ‘What is the ROI and what are the steps that, by using the UAV, we can remove from the agronomist or crop consultant’s workload?’” says Hoff.

Once all the value-added questions sort out, the next step for still-interested crop consultants is to decide whether to hire a third-party service provider like Agribotix or Vision Services Group (VSG) Unmanned, Inc., for their UAS needs, or whether they are comfortable enough to take on the technology without a safety net.

Hoff for one is naturally hoping it’s the latter. “By offering on a lease basis, we believe it pulls down some of the barriers to UAV ownership,” he says. “Crop consultants are concerned with being locked into one platform as other new, possibly more-advanced products emerge, and they’re asking us: ‘Well what happens if I crash my drone?’ and ‘Do I have to become a drone expert to use it effectively?’

“We’re just trying to extract all of the difficulties and complexities from owning a drone and processing the data; when you look at our service’s average cost against what it costs to purchase and maintain a UAS, we think it just makes more sense to do it this way.”

Illini Research

Back in The Land Of Lincoln, the University of Illinois-Extension is experimenting with UAVs on research plots located at the university’s South Farms.

Headed up by crop sciences educator Dennis Bowman, the Illini are probing for some of the same solutions that their private sector counterparts in Colorado are looking for – just what will these UAVs be able to accomplish in the Corn Belt?

Some of the most promising findings of Bowman and his team include a study on monitoring plants undergoing post emergence herbicide application for stress, as well as using multispectral data to pinpoint anomalies further along into the growing season.

“Walking through tasselling corn in the heat of summer is not a pleasant task,” Bowman, a former crop consultant, said in a recent interview. “The odds of actually getting to the far end of that field on foot to see what is going on are pretty slim.”

Notable work is also being done with multispectral sensor-equipped UAVs in the fight against resistant weeds, chiefly Palmer amaranth, which began invading Illinois in 2001 and has steadily increased its foothold by migrating north.

“Before the soybean rows close, or if we get a different spectrum response from some of these weeds as they break through the canopy, we may see some of those weeds show up in the imagery as well to help identify possible hot spots,” Bowman said.

With agriculture being consistently cited as a top application for emerging UAV technology, Bowman foresees a future where UAVs become as commonplace on the farm as the dusty, old coffee makers you see in barns throughout the Midwest.

“It doesn’t seem all that far fetched to think that not too far in the future a farmer will get up in the morning, hit a button and launch a couple drones that fly out over his fields and collect imagery that is wirelessly transferred to his office,” concluded Bowman. “And one of the first things he could do is sit down and scan his fields to see if anything needs his attention.”

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