Drones Give Farmers Much-Needed Air Support

September 6, 2016 11:03 AM

In the drought-stricken west where every drop of water counts, advanced drone technology is helping some California farmers save the scarce resource.

“We invest in these really expensive drip systems that save us 40 to 50 percent on the water that we used to use,” said Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming Company.

A drone equipped with a thermal camera is helping find leaks in that buried drip line.

Michael estimates this could save enough water to sustain 550 families of four in only a year’s time.

“Now with this drone technology, we can get right in there,” said Michael. “We can make sure the system is working properly, that we’re designing systems properly and that we’re detecting any problems before they lead to water loss.

Federal regulators have relaxed rules on commercial drones, a move that could spur greater use of such aircraft on American farms. It lets operators apply for waivers to fly drones at night, beyond line of sight, above 400 feet, and other specific types of operation.

Kansas State University’s polytechnic campus has teamed up with Precision Hawk, a leading drone and safety company, to investigate how a pilot can safely operate an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) when it is flying outside of their line of sight.

“In order for us to include UAVs in the national airspace, this is something the FAA wants,” said Dr. Ally Ferguson, director of research and education partnerships at Precision Hawk. “This is something the industry wants. It’s something consumers want, but in order to be able to do that, we need to be able to do that, we need to be able to give them the quantitative results that allow them to make risk-based decisions.”

The experiments will calculate levels of safety by testing a UAV operator’s abilities, such as pilot response time and decision making when confronted by a manned aircraft.

It’s the up and coming technology that is causing major agriculture companies to take notice. John Deere says precision ag is where they see the most growth.

“Maybe it’s a company that specializes in field maps, maybe it’s a company that has a drone technology you can tie into our operations center,” said Barry Nelson of John Deere. “You’re going to see tremendous growth in that.”

Climate Corporation says the issue now is so many companies have great technology, like drones, but bringing it to market can be a challenge. 

“How does a company that just started out that either creates a new sensor, or a new drone technology, a new concept, how does a company actually bring that innovation to the market?” said Mark Young, CTO of Climate Corp. “They don’t have any of those relationships, they haven’t built any of the account systems, the cloud systems, the 24-7 computer infrastructure that’s required to run these kinds of things.”

Young says that’s where Climate Corp. comes in, helping companies convert their innovation into a business, ultimately getting it into farmers’ hands, almost like an Amazon for agriculture.

“We’re taking the investment and the infrastructure and the cloud systems that we’ve developed over the past several years,” said Young. “We’re opening that up to third parties.”

As for Michael’s California operation, innovations like drones are helping save a precious resource.

“if you got a big leaking system, that's not doing you any good and it's not doing your water resources any good,” said Michael. “We've been able to proactively go after those leaks and identify them."

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