Wind took a big yield bite out of one of Mason Lantrip’s cornfields this past summer. When the insurance adjuster showed up to verify the claim, the two men enlisted help from Lantrip’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) to assess the extent of the crop damage. “He said, ‘Fly it to your four worst spots.’ So, I flew the drone over the field and hovered it. He walked to the drone, came back and said, ‘Oh, it’s really bad in there,’” recalls Lantrip, who farms near Coatesville, Ind.
Ultimately, insurance paid nearly twice the amount Lantrip had expected for the wind damage, and that wasn’t the first time the drone, a quadcopter, improved his bottom line.
“You know, it’s paid for itself 20, 30, 40 times over, and it’s done that three or four different years,” he says.
When UAVs entered the ag market, they did so with considerable fanfare. But today, only 31% of farmers say they find value in using a drone. Sixty-nine percent don’t use one, according to a March Farm Journal Pulse survey of more than 900 growers. An April 2017 survey showed similar results, with 68% of farmers saying they didn’t plan to use one.
Why the low rate of adoption, given the buzz around drone technology?
“Cost and the time required to fly the drone and then analyze the results are roadblocks,” says Steve Cubbage, president and owner of Record Harvest, a Nevada, Mo.-based precision farming company. “Some farmers don’t want to own a drone because they have to be licensed to fly one on the farm, legally, if they make business decisions with it.
“You can hire a high schooler to fly it over your fields, but you still have to figure out what to do with the data,” Cubbage adds.
There’s more than one way to capture value from a drone. Leonard Meador is licensed to fly a drone but doesn’t. Instead, his family works with their local fertilizer retailer who does in-season aerial scouting, and then his brother, Larry, uses the images and data to make agronomic decisions. Meador says, in a way, it’s a reverse progression from when they started collecting in-season data on their farm using an airplane.
“Flying over the fields helped us address things such as drainage problems and weed pressure,” says Meador, who owns land in Indiana and Washington and works as an agricultural business consultant. “A little bit later, we used a rocket we made. We’d shoot it up in the air and it’d take pictures on the way down.”
That was in the 1980s. Today, Meador believes independent crop agronomists, fertilizer retailers and seed dealers might be your best and most cost-effective resource for aerial intelligence in-season.
New collaborations in the UAV space for 2019, such as Syngenta with Sony and Corteva Agriscience with DroneDeploy, appear to support his view. Both partnerships are designed to help you, either through company or independent agronomists, gather aerial imagery and data so you can make in-season decisions to improve crop yield outcomes.
Despite those options, Bill Horan, a Purdue University Extension educator, believes farmers can benefit from owning a drone. In 2018, the university purchased 17 UAVs and distributed them to educators throughout the state to identify ways they can be used to help farmers.
“There are so many things you can do with one beyond crop scouting,” Horan says.
Crop growers are using drones to identify fields or parts of fields that are washed out and need replanting, check irrigation systems for plugged nozzles, take pictures of tile installations to show where the lines are, and fly over grain bins and barns to identify damage when storms occur. Likewise, livestock producers find drones useful to locate sick animals, mama cows that are calving, monitor outbuildings and facilities, and even find sections of fence that might need repair.
Because of the jobs drones can do, Horan encourages farmers to not be put off by the UAV licensing process, which requires doing online “book work” and taking the exam at one of the 700 Federal Aviation Administration-approved licensed testing centers. Test takers need a 70% to pass the exam, Horan adds.
Total cost for the process is about $150. More information on the test, called the Part 107 licensing exam, can be found at www.faa.gov/uas/commercial_operators.
If you decide to purchase a drone, consider what you want it to do before you buy. That seems obvious, but doing your homework now will help you avoid disappointment later. There are many companies, types of drone and price points in the agricultural market. AgriTech Tomorrow, an online trade magazine, reports “AeroVironment, DJI, DroneDeploy, GoPro, PrecisionHawk and Trimble Navigation are some key players in the agricultural drones industry.”
There are two basic drone types to consider: multirotor and fixed-wing. Multirotor drones tend to have a shorter battery life but are on the lower end of the cost spectrum. Horan’s DJI Phantom, a multirotor drone, retails in a bundled package (includes a transmitter, battery and case) for about $1,500 on Amazon. He says a “starter drone” costs about half that amount.
“If you had a one-time insect infestation that the drone helped you identify and treat, that would probably more than cover your $750 investment,” Horan says.
Farmers wanting to cover a lot of acres might consider buying a fixed-wing drone. It will cost you more upfront but has a longer battery life.
One drone, the Quantix, combines the benefits of both rotors and fixed-wing capabilities. It has enough juice to fly 45 minutes and cover up to 400 acres in a single flight.
As for analyzing the data, there’s software available for farmers to purchase. Another option is to subscribe to an online service. The cost is often less than $100 a month, and some providers allow you to subscribe short-term and even try their programs for free.
In Lantrip’s case, he flies his quadcopter manually over fields in-season to take video and still pictures. He also works with Granular to map entire fields and get NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) imagery.
“The NDVI pictures help me find and treat diseases and pests, and I can overlay those images with my yield map to improve my ROI,” Lantrip says. “This is all about the bottom line, and the drone helps me improve my productivity.”