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Published May 30, 2013, 05:42 PM

UAVs and the fields below

Boosters say unmanned aerial vehicles will play bigger role in farming

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Imagine the day when a farmer pushes a button that launches an unmanned aerial vehicle. The UAV flies over a field, captures high-tech images of the crop below and translates the images into easy-to-understand information.

Within minutes of pushing the button, the farmer receives a report that tells him, simply and clearly, how the crop is faring — and what he can do to improve it.

David Dvorak doesn’t know when that day is coming, but he thinks UAVs and agriculture have a bright future together.

“The boom (in using UAVs in agriculture) has just been growing. This is a great time to get involved,” says Dvorak, chief executive officer of Grand Forks, N.D.-based Field of View, which is involved with remote sensing equipment and UAVs.

Dvorak spoke May 30 at the 7th annual Unmanned Aircraft Systems Action Summit in Grand Forks. About 350 people attended the two-day event, which ended May 31. It was hosted by Northrop Grumman, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., the Red River Research Corridor and the city of Grand Forks.

Kyle Hayes, a product specialist with MicroPilot, also spoke May 30.

His company, based in Stony Mountain, Manitoba, about 15 miles north of Winnipeg, makes miniature UAV autopilots used in agriculture and other industries.

The company, founded in 1995, can meet the needs of both sophisticated and entry-level agricultural clients, he says.

A place in precision ag

UAVs are a good fit in precision agriculture, Dvorak says.

Precision ag is the use of technology to make farming more efficient and profitable. A major goal of precision ag is fine-tuning the amount of expensive chemical applied to each square foot of a field.

Though the use of UAVs in ag is relatively rare, “It’s kind of become the hot topic,” Dvorak says

Now, UAV proponents need to educate farmers and others in ag about the benefits that UAVs can provide, he says.

For instance, images from cameras or sensors on UAVs can help farmers and crop consultants decide how much chemical to apply, Dvorak says.

Some farmers already use images from satellites to help make decisions about their crops.

Dvorak says there are advantages and disadvantages in the use of both satellite and UAV imagery in agriculture.

UAV imagery can provide greater resolution than satellite imagery, he says, acknowledging that proponents of the latter might disagree.

Using UAV imagery also requires more effort initially than satellite imagery, he says.

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