The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) phenomenon is new – sure it feels like it’s been around for sometime but even the iPad is only four years old. The rapid rise – beyond those early innovators – of these compact machines that can gather so much information so efficiently is creating new opportunities for farmers and eventually for consultants. Of course it’s also the same industry waiting for a major government agency to make some key decisions as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) works on rules for commercial use of this technology.
Yet that wait didn’t stop farmers from traveling to Decatur, Ill., to see these machines in action at the first-ever Precision Aerial Ag Show. Set up at Progress City USA, home of the Farm Progress Show every odd year (that show is in Boone, Iowa this year in case you were wondering), visitors had a place where they could watch UAVs at work.
And those that attended the show were engaged, often overtaking UAV booths in the trade show to dig into how things worked and watching how to set up these low-flying aerial wonders. I learned a few things too.
Sure, the FAA could make their decision on ag use of UAVs in November, but the announcement of the decision is just the start. As one expert told us during the show, the FAA announcement will be followed by a 30- to 60-day comment period and after that the agency has 12 to 20 months to issue a final decision. That would put the decision as late as 2016, which would mean another season without use of this information on a wide scale.
Yet the optimism was apparent. Visitors wanted to know more and they really grilled exhibitors. A farmer panel held on each day had farmers asking a range of questions about specific systems and the key concepts for their operation. And exhibitors were ready to answer with software working and UAVs in their booths.
What follows are a few images from the event and my thoughts on what I learned. So read on to check out this mini-slide show from PAAS for 2014.
Crowding for demos
The bleachers were filled with spectators when the UAVs were operating, which meant most of each day. The early morning crowd opening day – shown here – was hearing plenty about the machines and how they work.
The unique setup that allowed the live demonstrations also meant that companies could only answer the most rudimentary questions about their equipment – like how the controller works, the ways it can fly a pattern, and operational limits. Comparisons, marketing information and other details were not discussed in the demo area. But a short walk away exhibitors were set up with displays where they could discuss their products.
Catching a glimpse
Spotting UAV’s in the sky isn’t so easy. Can you see the machine in this picture? Nope, that’s not fly dirt on your computer screen, that’s a UAV in the sky. What we learned is these little machines are hard to follow with a video camera and not much easier with a still camera.
There’s a UAV in this image, though it looks more like a speck of dust on the camera lens, check out the next page for a better look.
In this picture I show you where the UAV is in the picture from the last page, and also show you the actual product a little closer up. The buzzing of the multi-rotor coptor wasn’t hard to miss. The operational distances for these machines is great. An operator can control the flight path of the UAV to cover the field necessary.
The hovering ability of the multi-rotor units was interesting to watch. Some demos involved hovering, but just when a camera person (okay, me) lined up for the shot the user sent the machine on its way! We did manage to catch one at night – where it turns out they’re easier to see – and you can check out that video on the next page.
A little evening flight
Came across some folks doing some test work over a farm field in the evening. The bright lights of the little multi-rotor machines caught our attention. While the FAA is hard at work on working on the rules for use of UAVs in agriculture, for now they can only be used personally. This little dusk flight, with the nearly full moon as added light made for a nice little video.
It's a bird, no it's not
The fixed wing class of UAVs can cover a lot of acres in a short time – a key strength. Chad Colby, New Ag Talk, is a speaker at PAAS and he owns both the fixed wing and the multi-rotor systems. He sees the value of capturing imagery – infrared and for Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI) – for evaluating crops. This unit from Sensefly was flying a prescribed pattern around the demonstration area.
From a distance it looks like a large bird, and that’s true of other fixed wing models. One demonstrator noted that their model has been known to be picked on by smaller birds that see it as a predator on an overflight.
Engaged, and interested
The group of farmers and consultants that traveled to Decatur for PAAS was definitely engaged. This group, crowded around the Ag Eagle demonstrator was watching how the software for controlling that fixed-wing machine worked. That’s the benefit of this UAV-focused show. It drew a solid core of people interested in eventually putting these machines to work on their farms.
We heard that one manufacturer on site has a three-week backup on orders and may be selling as many as 50 a month from their business. While there are some that see this as a potential fad, one questioner during the farmer-panel asked whether UAVs would be the end of the crop scout. The answer was ‘no’ since the crop scout is still needed for serious on-the-ground double-checking and evaluation; however, these devices will make it a lot easier for the consultant to cover more acres and do a better job of prioritizing problem areas in-season.
UAVs are here to stay, and from what we saw it looks like farmers are ready to put them to use.