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Published June 02, 2014, 09:48 AM

Farmers hope for useful information from drones

Hundreds of farmers in the Upper Midwest are collecting data about their fields with drones this year, hoping the information will make their farm operations more productive.

By: Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio News

Hundreds of farmers in the Upper Midwest are collecting data about their fields with drones this year, hoping the information will make their farm operations more productive.

They’re embracing drones, even as Federal Aviation Administration rules regulating their use remain unclear.

"This is going to revolutionize the way farmers do business. And the information age is there, and it's here to stay. So I really hope guys adapt (to) it and adapt (to) it quickly," says Kris Poulson, a distributor for Farm Intelligence, a Mankato, Minn., company that analyzes the data collected by drones.

Poulson is so enthused about the prospects of using unmanned aerial systems to improve agricultural yields, that he’s using them on his own farm about 30 miles west of Fargo, N.D.

Ross Erickson is using the new piece of farm equipment, which has a three-foot wingspan and two cameras mounted in its belly, to photograph Erickson’s fields.

“Once you get experience with it, it takes about five to 10 minutes to do the set up, so it’s a pretty simple process,” says Erickson, an agricultural economics major at North Dakota State University.

He then threw the three-pound drone into the air and started it on a pre-set pattern over the field. From a distance, it looks like a hawk floating on a summer updraft.

The flight is entirely automated. The drone receives instructions from a laptop perched on the tailgate of Erickson’s pickup truck as it cruises 400 feet above the field at 30 mph.

But it isn’t a toy. The drone and cameras cost landowner and farmer Poulson about $25,000. But he expects the investment to quickly pay off in improved efficiency.

Under federal regulations, drones cannot be used for commercial use, FAA officials say.

Poulson, however, thinks his use of the drone is allowed because it’s flying over his property.

As there are no requirements that small drones be registered, no one tracks how many are in use.

But drone use is exploding this year, North Dakota State University Professor John Nowatzki says.

“In North Dakota and Minnesota there are hundreds of farmers’ fields that are being flown in 2014 with unmanned aircraft,” he says. “And they’re being flown in a commercial basis, so it’s certainly not under the rules of the FAA.”

In some cases, Nowatzki says, farmers are flying their own small drones. But there are also businesses flying drones for hire. It’s likely both are not permitted under FAA rules.

‘No shades of grey’

According to the FAA, “there are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft — manned or unmanned — in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval.”

Government or university projects can fly with a certificate of authorization from the FAA, but “commercial UAS operations are limited and require the operator to have certified aircraft and pilots, as well as operating approval,” according to FAA policy.

Earlier this year, a National Transportation Safety Board administrative law judge ruled the FAA could not fine a drone pilot $10,000 because the FAA does not have rules in place to regulate commercial use of unmanned aircraft. The FAA appealed to the full NTSB.

Phasing in

Congress has set a September 2015 deadline for integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace, but a U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general report says the FAA will not meet the deadline. FAA officials say the agency expects to begin slowly phasing in commercial drone use by the 2015 deadline.

The small aircraft take high resolution photos, and infrared photos.

Nowatzki says there can be hundreds of photos from one field. All of that data needs to be transferred to a computer server for analysis.

“Transferring the data is a big issue,” he says. “I’ve spent an hour and a half just uploading the data from one field to the internet.”

Farmers will fly over their fields several times a year. Poulson says he plans five to seven flights over his land. Flying before crops are planted allows him to map wet areas, or spot plugged drain tile buried under the field.

When the corn in this field is about 3 inches tall, he’ll fly it again.

After the photos are analyzed, the computer will tell him how many plants per acre sprouted, and pinpoint any thin spots. That data can help a farmer better manage fertilizer application, saving money and perhaps increasing yield.

Later in the season, the unmanned aerial vehicle will help find weedy spots and analyze the size of the corn cobs across the field, giving a preview of crop yield.

“It’s helping us make better decisions in real time,” Poulson says. “So I just view a UAV as another tool that should be sitting in your shed somewhere that comes out when it’s the appropriate time, to help maximize your farming productivity.”

But the benefits of drones on the farm are still developing.

NDSU researchers are testing equipment that allows a farmer to fly over a herd of cattle and check each animal’s temperature, providing early warning of illness or identifying a cow’s peak fertility for breeding.

Nowatzki is working on research this summer using infrared photographs for early detection of insects or crop disease. That means farmers can respond more quickly and reduce the amount of crop lost to disease or pest.

“We’ll be able to pick up those disease symptoms before a person walking in the field could pick them up,” Nowatzki says. “With an infrared image for example, (you’ll) be able to see the damage before you see it with your eyes.”

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