If you’re a farmer looking to keep a closer eye on your crops or need a better way to survey hundreds of acres after a storm, agriculture experts suggest looking to the skies.
“Drones have gotten very popular recently, and it’s not just under the Christmas tree. It’s out in the construction, infrastructure, civil engineering and transportation, but one of the biggest places we’re seeing this technology applied is down on the farm,” said John Perry, president of the Coastal Plains chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
On Thursday, Perry, along with representatives from the Southern Risk Management Education Center at the University of Arkansas Division Of Agriculture, presented an all-day session on the use of drones in agriculture during the annual South East Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center.
The technology, known as precision agriculture, gives farmers a new way to inspect crops, look for damage, detect nitrogen levels and apply spray applications of fertilizer or pesticides more efficiently, Perry said.
The Federal Aviation Administration revised their regulations on small unmanned aircrafts in 2016, which, among other things, allowed unmanned crafts weighing less than 55 pounds to fly up to 400 feet above ground level.
“Since the rules were approved (by the FAA) a little over a year ago, we’ve seen huge growth in the use of drones in agriculture,” he said.
“… As technology is growing rapidly and changing everyday, there’s a new set of service providers who are able to come in an provide not just a basic level of drone capabilities, but really advanced analysis for evaluating the plant count or improving prescriptions and treatments for the field.”
Following Hurricane Irma last September, Daniel Knaul, COO of Augusta-based Skyraider Aeronautics, traveled to several Georgia farms to survey storm damage so that farmers could send the data to the United States Department of Agriculture for insurance purposes.
“There’s a 2,000-acre pasture farm that we work with, and they had to see if their fences were still intact and they have something like 1,800 cows on the property, so it would be a real mess if they couldn’t see that,” Knaul said.
On another job after Irma, the survey revealed an orchard that had lost nearly 5,000 trees across about 100 acres. Another revealed acres of damaged corn, which wasn’t visible from ground level. The service gave the farmer the knowledge to act and harvest the area before it was too late. Skyraider Aeronautics’ drones can also check for pre- and post-storm erosion damage pinpointing changes down to an inch.
“We can track erosion really well using the technology if you know what you’re doing,” Knaul said.
The workshop featured an afternoon session, which was supported by a grant from the Southern Extension Risk Management Education Center that focused on the technical and legal aspects of using drones such as understanding the FAA regulations, sensors and data processing.
“Drones are an emerging technology, but there’s a majority of people that are lost and just don’t know anything about the types of aircrafts, sensors, software, regulations, legal risks… (Our presentation) is more of an A to Z, nuts to bolts session,” said James Robbins, an Extension specialist with the University of Arkansas System Cooperative Extension Service.
“We’re going to get them the foundation they need, and our whole objective is to reduce their financial risks moving forward so they make better decisions,” he said.
Eventually, Robbins said they aim to develop technology that could send out a swarm of drones to shoo birds off of crops, monitor animal health and pollinate Medjool Palm trees, which produce dates. The trees are now pollinated by hand.
“They’re looking at using it just like an insect or bird and take a little sachet of pollen and disperse the pollen to almost simulate what the natural system would do,” he said.
“It’s unimaginable the applications from the agriculture side… This is the hot area.”
No matter the type of drone or its purpose, Robbins and Perry both agree that education is the key to using drones safely and to their fullest extent.
“Education is the big part of this right now. You have tremendous technology that is moving so quickly, and it’s far more advanced in terms of the technology than in how it’s being used,” Perry said.
“We’re hoping to bridge that education gap and really bring the benefits of this technology out to the farmers and growers in Georgia.”
On the web
For more information about the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Coastal Plains chapter, go to www.auvsi.net/coastalplainchapter/home.
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