Last week was a new experience for me as I attended the Precision Aerial Ag Show in Decatur, Ill. It’s the first event that has focused solely on UAV use in agriculture. I’ve attended a more broad UAV conference before, but this one was pretty cool. There were a lot of farmers who already owned UAVs for their farms, and it’s one of the most engaged group of show attendees I’ve ever seen. It was actually tough to get the chance to talk with the exhibitors, because growers were asking them so many questions about their offerings.
I sat in on a panel during which several farmers shared their experiences with using UAVs on their operations. One thing was made clear: They’re all using them as hobbyists for now and are abiding by AMA regulations. That’s until FAA rules on commercial use in agriculture – that process is planned to start in November.
All of the UAV-using farmers agreed that it’s crucial to use common sense when flying, and to be respectful of neighbors.
“We have to be cautious. If you could just use a little common sense [and] be respectful of other people. It’s just like spraying – we try to be respectful of our neighbors when it’s too windy, and this is the same thing,” said Matt Hughes, one of the panelists.
Each of the three panelists that opened the session own a Phantom 2, made by DJI, and the GoPro seems to be a popular choice for capturing images. Two model options – fixed-wing or helicopter – are available. And it really boils down to user preference when you’re deciding what’s best for your farm. In general, fixed-wing models can cover more acres but may take a little more time to learn how to fly. And the copter models are able to zoom into smaller spots when needed.
During the event, I created a poll to gauge our readers’ interest in the new technology. And so far, the results are mirroring what I saw at the show last week: There’s a lot of interest in these systems. So far, the majority of respondents have said they are highly interested in purchasing a UAV for their farm.
Yet number two on the responses shows that some people are hesitant about the benefits. And like a lot of other technology in agriculture, it sometimes will only be beneficial for detecting when there’s an issue that needs fixing. Driving through central Illinois, I could see that the corn was in fantastic shape, and many of the presenters commented that UAVs may not be so helpful in that area this year. But where they do pay off is in situations where machinery is not working, such as a failing pivot on an irrigation system. Finding pest or disease pressure and knowing the specific areas of a field that need attention is another potential benefit.
Judi Graff - one of the panelists - says for her, she doesn’t want to wait until fall to find out about an issue in her fields. “It’s the peace of mind – you’ve got to know what’s out there [during the growing season],” she said.
And while these growers have invested money in purchasing a UAV and time in learning how to fly them, they all agreed the cost can be justified. Another panelist, Matt Boucher said “We need to look at what we spend per acre on our farm. If you purchase a $5000 UAV [and] if you’re flying 1,000 acres, and you’re flying everything twice that’s $2.50 per acre.”
While UAV prices can range widely based on what’s offered in the package, the technology will likely become cheaper in the future as demand grows. And several people I spoke with at the show said that once FAA rules on commercial use in agriculture, many of the UAV companies are likely to merge and offer UAV-based scouting as a service that farmers can rent. It makes a lot of sense for those that don’t want to invest in the technology themselves. In the meantime, stay tuned as we get closer to seeing some movement from the FAA – we’ll make sure to keep you informed.
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