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Published August 20, 2014, 11:13 AM

Drones could be ag’s next big thing

After seeing one in action, Duane Lunne could see himself buying a drone. The Dallas, S.D., cattle farmer and his friend Brad Kahler, of Colome, live two miles apart and were checking out a drone demonstration on Aug. 19, the opening day of Mitchell’s Dakotafest. The drones look cool, for sure, hovering and flying, with the high-quality models traveling up to 35 to 40 mph and weighing only 3 to 5 pounds.

By: Marcus Traxler, Forum News Service

MITCHELL, S.D. — After seeing one in action, Duane Lunne could see himself buying a drone.

The Dallas, S.D., cattle farmer and his friend Brad Kahler, of Colome, live two miles apart and were checking out a drone demonstration on Aug. 19, the opening day of Mitchell’s Dakotafest. The drones look cool, for sure, hovering and flying, with the high-quality models traveling up to 35 to 40 mph and weighing only 3 to 5 pounds.

But there’s a practical use for farmers on the plains to use them. Drones, advocates say, can spot stressed corn before anyone on the ground, and they can use infrared cameras to locate cattle across a field. In the vast expanses of South Dakota, where pastures can stretch for thousands of acres, the chance to find a wayward calf or cow with a drone might be an attractive option.

“It could pay for itself if you have one get out on you or anything, it doesn’t get too far away,” Lunne said of his cattle. “It could be a time-saver eventually and a good investment.”

Drones are still a relatively new concept in agriculture, but Matt Rohlik — who sells drones with Haug Implement in Willmar, Minn. — presented on the topic Aug. 19 in an event at the Mitchell Technical Institute Amphitheatre. He said there’s a misconception that the drones being used for agriculture also are being used for spying, like a military vehicle.

“These are not spies,” Rohlik said. “These are about collecting data to help make farming more efficient. We need to knock down these barriers about spying. These are tools, not toys. They’re fun to fly, but they’re going to go out and work for us and get some return on investment.”

The drones Rohlik was showing off range in price between $2,000 and $15,000, depending on the model and features. A smaller hovering drone with four rotors and a camera affixed to the bottom can be operated with a smartphone or tablet, as long as the phone has a wi-fi extender. The phone’s screen will show what the camera sees to give the operator a view of what’s going on in the field. A larger fixed-wing glider is also an option and will fly routes that are preprogrammed. Those can be equipped with an infrared camera and collect data that can be sent back within 48 hours and show the parts of fields that are most effective and also locate problem spots.

Both are equipped with technology to bring the drones back to home base if they venture too far away.

Phil Ellerbroek — who is the sales director for drone company Roboflight — said the drones are good for crop scouting, livestock and drainage inspections, or even to hover up to a grain bin setup, getting within 2 feet and providing photos to the operator on the ground.

“They can be used for benefit without much time or money being spent right off the bat,” Ellerbroek said. “There’s just endless possibilities and I think giving people the chance to see the drones up close helps ease some of those perceptions.”

Rohlik said drones will never replace what he calls “ground truthing,” because farmers will always have to get out into their fields and inspect what is happening to their corn, beans and livestock. Rohlik said most farmers know their fields but this is another tool to make things that are hard to see jump out.

Drones are being evaluated by the Federal Aviation Administration because the new technology doesn’t have hard and fast rules. Ellerbroek said drone operators are recommended to keep their drone within 400 feet of the ground and keep the drone in sight. They also recommend that operators at least take classes to learn how to fly the drones, which would mirror some private pilot classes.

Lunne said he expects drones to be the next big thing for farmers, especially as farms get bigger and have fewer employees to do the work.

“This is a logical next step, it seems,” he said.

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