Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which some people refer to as drones, may save farmers time and money with bird’s-eye views of farmland, says Bob Schultheis, a natural resource engineering specialist with University of Missouri Extension in Webster County.
Schultheis addressed the use of UAVs on the farm during the Greene County Soils and Crops Conference on March 18, 2014 at the Springfield Livestock Marketing Center.
UAVs suited for farm applications vary widely in cost and size. Entry-level aircraft cost $500‑$1,500 and can fly for 10-20 minutes without recharging batteries. Most weigh less than 5 pounds, have a wingspan of less than 3 feet and travel under 30 mph. For about $300, farmers can install cameras in drones that can send clear still or video images to a smartphone.
UAVs can provide information to answer questions like “How bad was last night’s hail storm? Are all of my cows on the north 40? Does my corn need more nitrogen?”
Most UAVs rely on Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) for navigation. Entry-level systems can be guided by a handheld remote control. More sophisticated vehicles can be programmed to fly designated routes using GPS and GIS technology.
“The uses are as varied as Missouri farmland. Entomologists may find the devices especially helpful for scouting of pests. UAVs can collect information on plants that have grown to heights that make it difficult to walk through narrow rows,” said Schultheis.
Farmers could even use the unmanned devices to document conditions when applying for government programs such as crop insurance.
“While much of the recent media attention has centered on unmanned aircraft as a way to deliver packages, commercial agriculture may be the largest beneficiary of UAV technology,” said Schultheis.
UAV technology has raised concerns about privacy issues, but UAVs used in agriculture likely are less controversial than those used for commercial applications. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not allow UAV use for commercial purposes. Farmers must follow FAA guidelines for hobbyists.
Unmanned aircraft are restricted to airspace no higher than 400 feet. If flights occur within 3 miles of an airport, airport officials must be notified. Recent information suggests producers are permitted to fly over areas they farm, but have to be careful about taking photos or video past their property lines.
Schultheis suggests that until a farmer gains confidence and skill, UAVs should be kept within line of sight. Winds of 20 mph or greater may present problems with stability and image quality.
In 2012, Congress directed the FAA to grant unmanned aircraft access to U.S. skies by 2015. The FAA has released a “road map” for potential UAV use and six federally designated test sites have been approved.