Drones: They can’t do it all, but they can do quite a bit

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Drones aren't going to deliver seeds or zap weeds from the sky -- at least not yet -- but there are plenty of things they can do, a panel told attendees Jan. 16 at the Precision Ag Summit's first day.

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JAMESTOWN, N.D. - Drones aren’t going to deliver seeds or zap weeds from the sky - at least not yet - but there are plenty of things they can do, a panel told attendees Jan. 16 at the Precision Ag Summit’s first day.

The two-day Precision Ag Summit, now in its sixth year, is put on annually by the North Dakota State University Extension Service, North Dakota Farmers Union, Red River Valley Research Corridor and Dakota Precision Ag Center.

Attendees could choose among breakout sessions on data, drones and imagery, drainage and irrigation, or equipment. Nolan Berg, of Peterson Farm Seed, Todd Golly, of Aker Ag, and Nikhil Vadhavkar, of Raptor Maps, addressed the myths and the reality of using drones in agriculture at an afternoon breakout session.

Berg said there are many things drones can’t do at this time. They can’t tell producers how much fertilizer to put down, can’t identify soil deficiencies or differentiate between weeds. But they can show variation in field and provide another resource for improving crops.

“They can give you a starting point,” he said.


Berg showed images taken by drone of a field early last growing season that showed some speckling. That information corresponded to places in the field that ended up having fungus problems. Had the speckles been checked out earlier, a fungicide could have saved the crop, he said.

Golly said he and his family have been early adopters of technology on their farm, and from their experiments with unmanned aerial vehicles they started Aker Ag. Most people aren’t going to buy and use their own drone, so Aker Ag serves as a full crop monitoring services that uses drones and delivers data to customers.

Echoing what Berg said about what could have been done with the drone images of speckles on a field, Golly said it’s important to go out and see fields for themselves.

“We absolutely have to ground truth all of this data,” he said.

Right now, drones are good for documenting, whether it’s looking at crop loss, crop stress, plant health, drainage or visual inspection. But Golly sees verification and analyzation techniques coming soon, followed by direct action - like zapping weeds from the air - in the future.

Drones can be exciting and fun, but without software and analysis, they don’t reach their full potential, Golly said. Most farmers don’t have the time to stand at the end of a field watching a drone or to keep up on new technology, and service providers can help them take advantage of that potential, he said. With the right knowledge, they can help determine human error, identify problems or reveal issues not previously thought of, he said.

Vadhavkar said he and his partner have backgrounds in aerospace but saw the potential drones could have for agriculture. He believes single images, when combined with GPS data, can be as useful as full-field maps. Images from a drone could be used alongside images from a smartphone camera with GPS data.

“The base level drone is a flying camera with GPS,” Vadhavkar said.


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