Drones on the rise in agriculture

Empire Unmanned's Brock LIpple launching an eBee UAV/drone
Proponents of drone technology say it would help farmers save time and costs associated with crop inspections. Photo: Empire Unmanned

Agriculture’s most helpful tool may be flying over farmers’ heads. The use of drone technology is on the rise in agriculture, which assists the industry in collecting data and providing real-time imagery and video of crops. Proponents of the technology say it also allows farmers to conduct daily tasks more efficiently, saving time and money in the long run.

“I wouldn’t say drones are a silver bullet, but rather another tool available through rapidly expanding technological advances in agriculture,” Seth Flanders, Commodity Buffer Program Coordinator for Spokane Conservation District (SCD), told Lens.

Two popular types of drones for agricultural use include data collection and aerial imaging drones.

“For aerial imaging, the convenience is being able to get a bird’s eye view of your field. It allows them to cover a larger area faster and get valuable information regarding crop issues in areas that are difficult to access and without physically damaging the crop.”

Data collection technology for producers via drones has also improved so people can view small sections of a field on command, Flanders continued. Previously, a satellite might pass over a field once a month and clouds may interfere with obtaining a clear view.

SCD currently flies two types of drones: one to capture aerial photography and videography and one to collect data using multispectral and thermal imaging technology. Both are used primarily for data collection and research.

Flanders added that the drone technology helps save farmers time and money with more precise herbicide spraying, which prevents having to cover a broad field if only sections require the treatment.

“What I’m noticing is that drones are becoming more and more part of the conversation,” said Flanders. “They are being looked at as tools more and more.”

Colleen Hennessey, Marketing and Sales Manager for Coeur dAlene-based Empire Unmanned, agrees the technology can help make farmers’ day-to-day tasks easier.

Colleen Hennessey, Marketing and Sales Manager for Hayden/Coeur d’Alene-based Empire Unmanned, agrees the technology helps make farmers’ day-to-day tasks easier.

The company provides commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), drone services to various government agencies, academic institutions and corporations in the western U.S., including work in the agriculture, construction, forestry, engineering and mining industries.

A veteran-owned company, it was one of the first commercial drone companies to receive Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Section 333 certification. Empire Unmanned features pilots who have served in the U.S. military flying state-of-the-art government defense UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) as well as commercial UAS. The business also offers manned flights through parent company Empire Airlines.

For agricultural clients, Empire Unmanned helps assist farmers with monitoring plant and soil health, and is currently working to identify specific invasive weeds in agriculture and for the U.S. government, being able to detect and spray weeds on recognition.

“When we do jobs, we are selecting the drone that is the best drone for the job,” said Hennessey. This includes the correct sensors and camera bandwidth for whatever the customer needs to accomplish.

Brock Lipple, Geographic Information System (GIS) director for Empire Unmanned, said there are two main types of drones: fixed-wing aircraft, which can cover a large area, and rotor wing drones for low-flying data collection.

He said drones could replace field-based scouting for plants.

“For a few people, it could take time to walk the field and check every row. A drone is able to remotely sense that information much quicker and get a snapshot of how well plants are doing.

“The endgame would be to reduce overall costs and time needed to inspect plants,” he added. This will save money in the long run if farmers are able to detect problems early on for dead or diseased crops.

Technology like the fixed-wing or copter drones allow for precision agriculture, which gives farmers real time information, so they can treat a field right on the spot and respond to fungus, harmful bugs, weeds or other invasive species.

Hennessey said farmers have been reacting positively to the addition of drones.

“Some farmers are a little bit reluctant to use drones because they are more familiar with manned flights and walking the fields. However, there is some information that cannot be provided by manned flights such as information on plant health.”

She added that the technology is rapidly changing and is highly competitive.

The company is working on developments within “behind visual line of sight” (BLVOS) drone flights in 2018. Current regulations prevent the flying of unmanned aircraft outside of an operator’s line of sight. BLVOS would open to the door to a number of commercial and government applications including firefighting, long-range crop inspections and package deliveries.



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