Knowing Your Roots

Officially, we call them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) but that’s too confusing with all the SUVs, ATVs and UFOs out there–so we just call them drones!

They are already moving into every part of our lives from real estate to tourism, sales to sports, even police work and spying! You name it and a drone is probably lurking.

So why not agriculture? In an earlier blog, we talked about the mountains of information today’s farmer needs to make decisions and stay in business; well drones are ideally suited and poised to fill that need.

Fifty years ago the farmer did things instinctively, relying on experience and accumulated knowledge— walking into the field, feeling the soil, talking to the plants, casting an eye to the sky and just ‘knowing’ what was best.

In the 90s, the era of integrated crop management dawned, and a whole new industry of crop consulting was born with legions of highly trained field scouts and ‘experts’ stepping in to relieve the farmer of the burden of making decisions.

Well, now that is no longer enough. Scouts have to tromp through fields on hot steamy days and  document an increasingly complex amount of information (bugs, diseases, weeds, fertility, water stress  and all the other things that can affect  the crop) and then get all this back to the farmer.

It takes time, and scouts are human; they can make mistakes, tempting farmers to err on the side of caution and apply more inputs than may be needed. Not to mention that it is increasingly difficult in today’s society to find dedicated, highly trained people who are willing to do this arduous and exacting work for little more than minimum wage!

Enter the drones. They were made for this kind of work. As Professor Brian Luck from the UW’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering points out: “Drones can be loaded with game-changing technology – infrared cameras, vegetative indices sensors and other technology, collecting all manner of relevant data.”

It is estimated that up to 80% of the commercial market for drones will be in agriculture by 2025 creating a whole new industry with 100,000 new jobs and countless new tax revenues.

There is little doubt that this will happen. At $3-4,000/each, drones are cost efficient for farmers – way less than the hundreds of thousands for other equipment and, on top of everything, they are a lot of fun to fly!

So let the drone era begin. They will play a major role in the evolution of agriculture until remote sensing becomes even more remote as the satellites enter the stage at the farm level.

Before we hand everything over to the remote collection capabilities of the drones, however, there is need for caution. Is the technology developed that will allow us to process the huge amounts of information that the drones are capable of collecting?

We know that drones can take beautiful photos, lots of them — thousands each day— but extracting information from thousands of photos is time consuming and impractical without complex and expensive image processing systems.

Fortunately Wisconsin’s potato growers are as prudent as they are progressive in embracing new technologies. In 2015, they embarked on a three year research project with a group of researchers from four UW departments to explore what drones can do realistically to improve potato production.

Project leader, Dr Paul Bethke from the Dept. of Horticulture, is optimistic but cautious. Bethke states, “We know that in addition to cameras, other detectors can be used on drones to identify varieties, detect chemical composition of leaves and identify virus-infected plants but doing this correctly requires extensive ground-truthing.” The ground-truthing process helps verify research based information and ensures these types of technologies actually work in field-scale settings.

Drones will undoubtedly march on and assume a prominent role in leading the agriculture of the future, and Wisconsin’s growers will be ready to use their capabilities when proven — all because of being proactive and investing in research now to prove and ground-truth the benefits of these technological advances.

Until then, let us learn from past eras, encourage documented research and on-farm demonstrations and use what they can provide while keeping an eye on future advances.

One final note of caution, the FAA is finalizing rules for drone use in agricultural but as of now, they are not cleared to be used in that setting except for recreational or hobby use, and outside the boundaries of restricted use airspace.   If using drones, make sure they are clear of other low-flying aircrafts to ensure safety.

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