The Reality of UAVs in Agriculture

UAV use in agriculture includes crop scouting, diagnostics, but adoption of new technology won't happen overnight.

Published on: Jan 30, 2014

Unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones, have gotten a lot of hype lately. A quick Google search will reveal the buzz about potential drone use in commercial sectors – from Amazon using them for deliveries to farmers using them for crop scouting, in addition to military use. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, has estimated there will be 100,000 jobs created and an economic impact of $82 billion due to overall UAV use in the U.S. by 2025.

At the 2014 Kansas Ag Research and Technology Association Conference in Salina, northwest Kansas farmer and KARTA member Dietrich Kastens advised producers to be patient – the adoption of new technology never happens as fast as people hope.

BE PATIENT: Dietrich Kastens advises farmers to be patient – the adoption of new technology, UAVs included, doesnt happen overnight. There are still questions to be answered on regulations, legal issues relating to airspace, and how to handle the raw data collected by this technology and make decisions based off of it. "Youve got another layer of data to work with, so what?" Kastens says. "Just because we have a new source of data doesnt mean were going to have all the answers magically appear."
BE PATIENT: Dietrich Kastens advises farmers to be patient – the adoption of new technology, UAVs included, doesn't happen overnight. There are still questions to be answered on regulations, legal issues relating to airspace, and how to handle the raw data collected by this technology and make decisions based off of it. "You've got another layer of data to work with, so what?" Kastens says. "Just because we have a new source of data doesn't mean we're going to have all the answers magically appear."

At the moment, he says, it isn't known what commercial uses will be approved for UAVs. Farmers have no idea what rules and regulations will be in place, and there are a lot of questions to be answered on legal issues relating to airspace. One of the biggest questions is how to handle the raw data collected by UAVs and make decisions based off of it. "You've got another layer of data to work with, so what?" Kastens says. "Just because we have a new source of data doesn't mean we're going to have all the answers magically appear."

Potential for UAVs

This doesn't mean expectations of improved crop scouting, in-field diagnostics, on-farm research support, and near real-time monitoring at the plant level won't be met, Kastens says. The first major application will likely be improved crop scouting, he says. The second will probably be diagnostics of weather events and equipment performance, including planters, sprayers, fertilizer applicators, or pivot irrigation systems, and their impact on yield – the kinds of things that can't be seen or measured currently from the ground level.

Then there are applications that require hard math, like determining how runoff and compaction affect yield. Analyzing and making decisions based this data means cross training agronomists in remote sensing, and finding people to teach them about this technology while applying it back to agronomy, which won't happen overnight, Kastens says.

UAV technology will change how farming is done, but it will take time to adopt – just like convincing farmers to switch from applying the same fertilizer rate on the entire farm in the 1990s. Kastens notes Oklahoma State University Extension machinery specialist Randy Taylor's approach to making the switch. "He was going to be satisfied if farmers would just turn the knob," that is, apply different rates for different fields. Now, farmers are applying different rates within fields. "You don't have to get from point A to point Z in one fell swoop," Kastens adds. "You just have to be better today than you were yesterday."

For more information on UAV use in agriculture, read the March Kansas Farmer.