Farmers Get Ready to Fly

July 13, 2016 03:30 PM
Farmers Get Ready to Fly

Follow this advice to get the most out of your drone this season.

Beyond cool pictures, drones can gather important crop information in a short amount of time, but that doesn’t mean the investment is an easy buy. “We’ve got a learning curve we’ve got to work through,” says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie.

Here are five tips before taking flight:

1. Know what you want to accomplish. 
Flying a drone is fun, but it requires a certain skill to get usable data. “Right now we might still be in the toy phase as farmers are experimenting with drones,” Ferrie says. “They really need to come up with a checklist of what they expect to get from a drone.” 

For example, how in-depth do your maps need to be? Are you looking for weed or disease pressure or advanced soil health diagnostics? Different software and drone designs offer a variety of maps that vary in relation to NDVI maps. Also, consider if the technology needs to work with sprayer and harvest data systems.

2. Pick a plug-and-play package.
Missouri farmer Brent Gerke learned the hard way. “The first one I bought, I pieced everything together. I bought the drone, batteries, supplies, case, cables and memory sticks. I’d highly suggest going with a packaged deal,” he says.  

Gerke carries his drone in the back of his pickup, so a good case is essential. 

3. Use a software package with good customer support. 
“One of the things about drones is how do you georeference the picture,” Ferrie says. “Having a whole bunch of pictures doesn’t mean anything if I can’t get to that spot.” 

Farmers can find software to stitch photos together themselves or outsource it. While it might be cheaper to do it yourself, an outside source might offer a better quality picture, he adds.

Look for software packages that offer good customer support. “Just like a tractor or other piece of equipment, you’ve got to have someone to call on if you need help and someone to send it to if you need parts,” Gerke adds.

These aerial photos told Missouri farmer Brent Gerke it was time to scout.

4. Let it guide your scouting efforts. 
Aerial imagery can tell you where to go first, Ferrie says. “If I match up imagery with GPS coordinates, you can get to the spot in question and do the ground truthing. I don’t think drones will replace scouting, but they will make farmers more efficient.”

In one of his first flights, Gerke mapped a wheat field and noticed color variation in the crop. Later, he identified a rust infection in the wheat. “I pulled my map up on my phone and the places I thought there was discoloration was where the rust was showing up,” he says. “It doesn’t take many situations like that to justify the technology.”

5. Price it like equipment.  
ROI is key for any new technology. “People ask me how do you justify spending money on a drone, and I look at it as a $1-per-acre type of investment in equipment,” Gerke says. 

Want to learn how to get the most of your farm technology? Join Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie at Technology College in Heyworth, Ill., on July 19. Register today!

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