Drone-Buyer Checklist

March 21, 2014 09:02 PM
Drone-Buyer Checklist

The 9 questions you should ask before you get started

If you’ve already answered yes to the question, "Should I use a drone on my farm?" the next logical question becomes, "What type of drone should I buy?" The challenge is that these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) come in all shapes, sizes, capa­bilities and prices. 

UAVs can perform any number of tasks, from getting a simple bird’s-eye view of a field to more complex analysis and management decision-making. Some ranchers have even herded livestock with drones.

Here are 9 additional questions that would-be drone users should ask before purchasing their first UAV:

1. What do you want the UAV to do, and is it possible?
"It really depends on the application," says Steve Cubbage, president of Prime Meridian. "People need to be careful thinking there are more bells and whistles than there actually are."

2. How much will it cost for it to do what you want it to do?
With a basic model such as a DJI Phantom Quadcopter fitted with a GoPro camera, you could start flying a drone on your farm for less than $1,000. More deluxe options sell for $10,000 but add important functionality such as multispectral imagery, data analysis, custom prescriptions and more.

3. How much ground should it cover?
"If you’re covering large acres, that’s where a fixed wing has advantages over a quadcopter," Cubbage says. "You can fly an extreme amount of acres going 30 or 35 mph. But if you want to hover over an area to get exten­ded views of something, the quadcopter is better."

4. How foolproof and easy to fly is it?
Mastering the learning curve is one of the biggest anxieties that first-time users have with drones, explains David Pinkerton, president of AgriImage. 

"People need to check what built-in fail-safes are in place [such as a return-to-home feature or built-in GPS tracker]," he says.

5. In what weather conditions can it fly?
Some UAVs are more stable at higher wind speeds, and some are rated to fly in colder weather. Some can fly when it’s inclement, while other models need to stay in the shop on rainy days.

6. What is the battery life?
Some units can fly only 20 minutes or so before needing recharging, while others can fly for up to twice as long.

7. What types of data can be collected, and can it be incorporated into your existing farm-management software?
Images are useful, but some add-ons allow upgrading to HD video, normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) imagery and more, says Pat Lohman, COO of PrecisionHawk.

"You can improve your decisions when you have multiple inputs to ground truth," he says. "Keep in mind that precision ag prescriptions will require high-resolution still imagery."

8. Will you be FAA compliant? In the past, farmers were advised to fly UAVs under 400' and not use them for commercial use to stay within FAA regulations. However, a judge recently ruled that FAA’s prohibition on drone use was based on policy statements rather than actual regulations. Be prepared for the legal ramifications to change quickly. 

9. What kind of training or technical support can you expect?
Limited support is often a trade-off for more basic models. Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to ask questions before purchasing any new technology, and drones are definitely no exception.  


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