Flying a little higher
CRYSTAL, N.D. — Nick Otto stands in a 160-acre field of fledging corn on a coolish June afternoon. His eyes and experience tell him a lot, but he knows they don't reveal everything, especially about a field this large.
He specifically wants a better handle on the stand count, or the number of corn plants growing in the field — information that will help Otto, proprietor of Otto Ag in Crystal, N.D., best advise his farmer client on how much fertilizer to apply. Applying too little shortchanges the crop; applying too much wastes money.
So Otto and employee Cameron Jenson are preparing to send up up a small drone that, while traveling 24 mph, will take multiple aerial images of the field. Those images will be compiled into a single image that Otto will study before making his fertilizer recommendation.
"It's a service to our customers," says Otto. "But there's a learning curve, and we still have more to learn."
What's happening on this northeast North Dakota field is occurring across the Upper Midwest. After years of hype, speculation and uncertainty, farmers, agronomists and others in ag are making more and better use of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs.
That's partly because the Federal Aviation Administration last summer released its much-anticipated rules outlining the legal commercial operation of small, low-level drones in agriculture. Agriculturalists said the rules removed some of their uncertainty about the use of drones.
Technological improvements — in cameras and software, for example — help, too.
But drones aren't commonplace in the Upper Midwest, at least not yet.
"They're still in the early stages of adoption," says John Nowatzki, North Dakota State University agricultural machine systems specialist. He's worked extensively with the use of drones in ag.
His guess is that roughly a quarter of farmers and agronomists across the state will make use of drones this crop season.
"They're using it mainly as a scouting tool, to get up in the air and see what it (fields beneath) look like," Nowatzki says.
He recommends that North Dakota farmers with questions about drones contact their local extension agent.
Huge potential market
Drones have many potential uses, including infrastructure inspections, real estate and construction, experts say. But agriculture appears to hold the greatest potential.
Ag eventually will account for 80 percent of the world commercial drone market, according to a 2013 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The report estimates that annual sales of UAVs for ag will reach 160,000 by 2025, compared with fewer than 20,000 for other uses.
And a 2015 study by Informa Economics and Measure, a drone service provider company, found that corn, soybean and wheat farmers could save $1.3 billion annually by using drones.
The drone flying over the Crystal corn field illustrates how agriculturalists hope to use drones to fine-tune the amount of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer and inputs on specific points in individual fields, a process generally referred to as precision ag.
"The way technology is evolving — (drones) are on the cutting edge of that," says Brad Thykeson, a Portland, N.D., farmer and a director of the state Grain Growers Association.
He also says farmers and other property owners have legitimate privacy concerns about the use of drones.
'Adopting very fast'
Otto Ag has been in business for 17 years. Today, it scouts crops (examines them to see how different parts of a field are growing), sells fertilizer and chemicals and does "a lot of precision ag," Otto says.
The business, which has six full-time and 16 seasonal employees, primarily serves customers within a 40-mile radius of this northeast North Dakota farm town. Otto Ag works with the many crops grown in the area. The list includes potatoes, dry beans, sugar beets, corn, wheat, sunflowers, alfalfa and canola.
This is the third year Otto Ag has successfully used drones, Otto says.
The company doesn't charge for drones and considers them a service to customers, he says "We're just trying to offer more to our customers to help them succeed."
Drone uses at Otto Ag include scouting for weeds in many crops, disease in potatoes, tracking crop stands in corn and sugar beets and studying alfalfa fields to see how much winter-kill they suffered.
"We have to do a better job of saving money. We're also looking to conserve fertilizers and chemicals. We've seen cases where we've definitely done that" through the use of drones, Otto says.
One example he uses: a farmer who saved $3,500 by using less herbicide on 300 acres of wheat.
Some farmers are skeptical about drones. "Which is good. They have questions. They keep you on your toes," Otto says.
"But a lot want to try it on their farm," he says. "It's adopting very fast," especially among "the younger generation. They want to see more of it."
The past three years have brought progress in making effective use of drones, Otto says.
A particular concern in the past were delays in stitching multiple aerial images into a single, useful image. Now, "the software and camera have improved to get us our information back quicker," Otto says.
"The technology is catching up," Nowatzki says. He also says more improvement is needed, particularly in transmitting large amounts of drone imagery over the internet and cellular network.
'Guys are curious'
Many, even most, ag producers remain interested in using drones.
"Guys are curious about it, that's for sure, We've done a lot of demos," says Doug Weist, a Choteau, Mont., farmer and the proprietor of FarmTech, which began using a "pretty high-end" drone last year.
The Choteau business says it seeks "to help farmers increase profits and protect their natural resources" through use of soil, crop, and weather data to direct top-of-the-line machine control that increases production while reducing inputs."
Curiosity is one thing; actual use is another.
Drone use 'isn't very prevalent yet," in Montana ag, Weist says.
Though progress has been made with cameras and software, processing data is a huge hurdle. That's especially true given big fields and farms and the huge amount of data collected from them, he says.
"A 300-acre farm would be all right. But 4,000 to 10,000 acres — getting over them in a timely fashion is almost impossible," he says. "If I could have a swarm of drones sitting in my garage, hit a button and have 20 go out tomorrow when the weather is perfect, that's another story."
Some drone supporters predict that swarms of UAVs, working in tandem to cover large fields, are in ag's future. But it's impossible to say when, if ever, that might occur.
Weist suggests a farmer or agronomist interested in using drones buy a relatively inexpensive one and start working with it.
Otto says his goal is having farmers collect drone-supplied information from their fields, then turn over the data to their agronomists to process and analyze.
Collecting the data, though time-consuming, isn't complicated. "Interpreting the data is the hard part," he says.
His advice to agriculturalists interested in drones: "You have to have a lot of patience, and you don't always get the results you want. And it takes time; it's not a fast process," he says.
Whatever their limitations and shortcomings, drones will play an increasing role in Upper Midwest agriculture, Otto says.
"They have a place, and it's growing," he says. "But we still have a ways to go."