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Jack Wilcox, an account executive for Maverick Drone Systems of Savage, Minn., (left) talks with Kelly Sharpe, is the owner and agronomist for GK Technology of Halstad, Minn., about how drones can be used for crop management maps, March 23, at the International Sugarbeet Institute at the Fargodome. Photo taken March 23, 2017, in Fargo. (Mikkel Pates/Agweek)

Down-to-earth ag drones

FARGO, N.D. — The question is no longer when, it's how, the experts say.

Adoption of drones for precision agriculture applications has sky-is-the-limit potential, even as the learning curves and economics bring it back to earth.

Matt Henry, mission manager for the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, a speaker at the International Sugarbeet Institute in Fargo on March 23, said the Federal Aviation Administration in December issued rules for small aircraft.

"There's a lot of interest," Henry said. "People are saying, 'We have these rules, we can fly, how do I do it?'"

The use of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, has gotten bigger and bigger for agricultural producers looking to be early adopters in drone-assisted precision agriculture.

The test site, operated by the University of North Dakota, started out specific to the state but in 2014 and 2015 was expanded to the entire continental U.S. They field questions constantly, relating to individual markets, including agriculture. With new FAA rules, most questions can be answered by going to faa.gov and other online research, Henry said. Farmers can peruse through the 107 rules online, and there are many local flight schools and operators in the region who will get them flying or do the flying for them.

Henry said the most limiting factor for farmers is just "educating themselves" and passing the test that allows them to fly drones.

"You have to be a licensed unmanned pilot to do these things commercially, so for some it may be easier to find an operator locally that can fly it for them whenever they want to," he said.

There is also the cost of keeping a drone maintained and for the operator to stay current and proficient.

Scout-to-map

Jack Wilcox, an account executive for Maverick Drone Systems of Savage, Minn., works in technical service and sales of unmanned aircraft systems, especially in remote-sensing for agriculture and civil engineering.

"The initial thing people think is that it's a great crop-scouting tool, which it is, but I'm trying to get them transitioned into the mapping portion — instead of using satellite imagery you're using 'orthophotos' to create three-dimensional models and surface models, to where you can analyze plants on a close basis."

An orthophoto is an aerial photograph that has been geometrically corrected so that the scale of the photograph is uniform and can be used as a map.

This past Christmas there were more than 1 million drones sold through Amazon and other sources. A major supplier isDa-Jiang Innovations Science and Technology Co., Ltd. of China. Wilcox hears show-goers talk about owning lots of drones, often from DJI.

"They say, 'I have the Phantom 3, or Phantom 4," he said, listing popular drones made by DJI. "It's becoming a lot more common."

In a recent show Wilcox heard farmers talk about using them to inspect their irrigation systems — "flying along as they're spraying, to see if their trackers are still working."

The big thing should be creating maps for your fields to make maps that indicate disease and pest issues.

Counting aphids?

John Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University Extension Service machine specialist, said the university is developing a collaboration with a private company that wants to use high-resolution cameras, suspended from drones and dropped into soybean foliage, capable of counting aphid numbers for the purpose of advising spraying decisions.

"Someone brought up the idea having drones take soil samples for you and transport them back," Wilcox said. Some farmers will create maps to do spot-spraying. "It records in an information system where you sprayed, when, so you can manage your fields better — how you're doing custom applications with aerials spraying drones."

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index maps are being created to measure plant health. Sugar beet farmers have a special interest in using drones to collect thermal imagery to identify herbicide-resistant weeds, Wilcox said.

Kelly Sharpe is the owner and agronomist for GK Technology of Halstad, Minn., a company that takes images that drones create and converts them into "usable data" so that customers can make or use NDVI maps, merge them with management zones and merge them with yield data to make zone management maps.

"I think a big part of the adoption rate is economics. I think it's getting a little more difficult with the turn in the economy," Sharpe said. "It's definitely making a bigger fight to get growers to maintain and to buy into new technology."

As commodity prices prevent comfortable profits, farmers pull spending decisions back to "core, essential components," he said. New ideas — even ones with significant cost-saving potential — must be proven.

"Bankers are hard to prove it to, but every farmer is a banker in themselves," he said.

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