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Sky-High Potential

August 27, 2014
By: Ben Potter, Social Media and Innovation Editor google + 

Ask the right questions to unlock the potential of drones

Drones have captured the imagination of farmers and tech enthusiasts. The fairly small tools offer big potential—and more questions than answers.

"The cost is coming down quickly and the technology is rapidly developing, but there’s the potential to make mistakes without proper training," says David Burchfield, applied research associate at Roboflight.

With that in mind, here are four questions every farmer should ask about unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology before jumping in.

1. What do you want your drone to do? It’s important to understand capabilities before you sink any costs into the technology.  

2. What kind of model works best? There are dozens of fixed-wing and copter models on the market. Each has its own distinct pros and cons. 

3. Are drones legal and safe to fly? This topic is plagued with uncertainty, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has promised it will incorporate small UAVs into the national air space as early as 2015. 

4. How much money will it cost, and what’s the ROI? The cost varies from $200 to tens of thousands of dollars. This has led many, such as Illinois farmer Adam Watson, to start with entry-level models to gain familiarity with flying, with an eye to upgrade.

"I’m playing around with some less expensive drones this season in anticipation that the functionality will change a lot in the next couple of years," he says. "I want some experience with the technology without heavily investing in it just yet."

What It Means To Me

  • Drones have the potential to be a disruptive technology in agriculture, especially as cost drops and capabilities rise.

  • There are dozens of uses for drones on the farm, ranging from simple scouting to complex multi-spectral image collection and analysis.

  • The Federal Aviation Administration has not integrated commercial drone use into the national airspace; until then, their legal status is unclear.

  • Just like any other technology, there are best practices for flying drones safely and responsibly.

Whether drones are just a fad or here to stay, the technology’s moment in the spotlight is now. It’s time to take a close look at how to farm with drones.

Picture perfect. The drone use that perhaps gets the most buzz is the prospect of collecting imagery and using those images to build out prescription fertility or seeding maps. 

Simple photography will reveal new insights about your fields, but Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) images will unlock an even deeper understanding of the land.

Collecting NDVI images is not a new practice on the farm. But how these images can be collected is changing with UAVs. That could raise some unique accuracy problems, says Dan McKinnon, Agribotix co-founder.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - September 2014

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