By Russ Banham
There was a time when the idea of spraying insecticide and fertilizer on crops from the air seemed farfetched. Today airplanes do exactly that. Now the agricultural industry is considering another type of airborne vehicle — drones.
More farmers are using the unmanned aircraft systems to maximize the efficiency of agriculture, increasing crop yields at reduced cost, effort and impact on the environment.
Drones equipped with specialized cameras wirelessly linked to location software and mapping tools can survey fields from above to detect and diagnose crop stresses. Armed with this data, farmers can take corrective actions.
Although the use of drones in farming is in its formative stages, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International anticipates that farms will eventually account for an 80 percent share of the commercial drone market globally.
In Indiana, drones are poised to become as ubiquitous as crop dusters. With nearly 15 million acres of farmland producing corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, and tomatoes, the state is a prime market for startup agricultural drone companies, like Precision Drone.
Founded by Matt Minnes in 2012, Precision Drone manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, that replace the time-consuming method of scouting fields by walking through rows of crops. Minnes formerly worked for a seed company in Indiana when inspiration struck.
“I realized that walking hundreds of acres to monitor corn and soybean fields was no way to spot a problem unless you stumbled upon it,” he said.
Minnes was determined to alter the status quo. The entrepreneur confined himself to his garage in search of a solution. He bought an infrared video camera and a simple graphical indicator called an NDVI, or normalized difference vegetation index, that senses the presence of live vegetation on the ground. He then affixed both devices to a handmade aerial platform built from the parts of several store-bought drones.
Next, Minnes collaborated on the development of software that integrates data from the video camera with additional feeds coming in from the NDVI and GPS monitor. These data sets are then automatically plotted on GIS (Geographical Information System) maps of the field being examined.
Minines’ last step was to obtain a pilot’s license, a requirement at the time to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle. This requirement is gone now, thanks to new Federal Aviation Administration drone operator licensing rules that came into effect in August 2016. No longer must one be able to fly a plane in the sky to operate a drone from the ground.
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Minnes grew up around agriculture — his grandparents owned a farm — and double-majored in agribusiness and agricultural economics at the University of Illinois, where he worked on the school’s prestigious research farm.
“There’s a lot of farmer ingenuity that goes into Precision Drone,” he said.
The name comes in part from precision farming, a revolutionary farm management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to field variability in crops. The objective is to produce greater yields and profits at less cost and environmental impact. The use of remote crop-health data is a key element of precision farming. Minnes beta tested his drones at the fields of a few young farming friends and seed-buying customers.
“I tried a lot of different things before I found what worked best,” he said. “For instance, I went from a quad copter with four rotors to a hex copter with six, which withstood wind gusts better. And I learned that intermittent pictures from two point-and-click cameras was a better means of capturing data than video.”
In 2014, Precision Drone opened its doors for business. The company sells drones for use by farmers trained to operate the aerial systems. It also operates the drones for a fee. In the past four years, Minnes alone has operated drones for farmers over more than 400,000 acres. The company has dealers in 26 states, Canada and Mexico, he said.
“The demand for drones continues to rise across the country, as more and more growers migrate toward precision agriculture,” he said. “With more of the country’s farmland giving way to real estate development, the need for productivity solutions has to increase.”
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated business journalist and author of 24 books.