Unmanned Aerial Vehicle enthusiasts used their cameras and phones to capture the action during flight demonstrations at the first Precision Aerial Ag show held at Progress City USA in Decatur, Ill. Every 15 minutes, UAV venders demonstrated their “fixed wing” and “rotary (copter) wing” ships throughout the show.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle enthusiasts used their cameras and phones to capture the action during flight demonstrations at the first Precision Aerial Ag show held at Progress City USA in Decatur, Ill. Every 15 minutes, UAV venders demonstrated their “fixed wing” and “rotary (copter) wing” ships throughout the show.
DECATUR, Ill. — The dreaded task of crop scouting can become much easier with new technology that offers farmers a bird’s-eye view of their fields.

That was the message delivered by producers and agribusiness representatives at the inaugural Unmanned Aerial Vehicle outdoor exposition at Progress City USA.

As indicated by the large crowd attending the two-day Precision Aerial Ag Show, interest in this new technology has been growing at stealth speed.

Manufacturers and suppliers of UAVs and related equipment demonstrated their “fixed wing” and “rotary (copter) wing” products through the show.

Among the standing-room-only draws was a panel of farmers who already have taken off into the UAV realm.

“It’s exciting just to see the pace in which this is coming along and advancing on farms,” said moderator Max Armstrong, Penton/Farm Progress Cos. broadcasting director and co-host of the TV show, This Week in Agribusiness.

“Some of you are seasoned veterans and fly your own aircraft. Others probably came here today to see if you want to put your toe into the water or perhaps share with your neighbor.”

Farmer panelists Judi Graff, Middletown; Matt Hughes, Shirley; and Matt Boucher, Dwight, are in their first year of using their small copter-like Phantom 2 equipped with a GoPro camera.

Graff first saw the benefits of her UAV during spring’s heavy rains when she was able to check how a recently upgraded waterway and terrace were handling the water.

Hughes said the UAV was purchased primarily for scouting.

“It’s lived up to that. It covers a lot of ground,” said Hughes, who previously relied on getting a loftier view of his fields by climbing the grain bin or getting a ride on his neighbor’s airplane.

The Phantom 2 enables Hughes to see the entire field to find problems.

“I have one field that’s one mile long, and I’d never get to the end of that. Now if I see a problem, (with the UAV) I can make my way down there,” Hughes said.

Boucher purchased his Phantom 2 in late December.

“It’s my first one, and it will not be my last,” he said.

Scouting Assistant

Although UAVs can collect aerial views of entire fields, Boucher said it’s just part of crop management.

“Conventional crop scouting won’t be obsolete any time soon,” he said.

“When you fly the whole field and see something that isn’t quite right, we can either hover real close to it and get better pictures or we know where to walk to. It will save a lot of time.”

Graff said an advantage of having her own UAV is timeliness. She gave an example of corn that was recently knocked down by wind in northern Illinois.

“Do you want to wait until someone can look at it next week or do you want it done tomorrow when you can get to it yourself?” Graff said.

It also enables farmers to look at their fields throughout the growing season and into fall to monitor weeds.

UAVs also can be used to recognize specific weeds to aid in determining a herbicide program.

Investment Return

As with any investment in a farming operation, growers need to sharpen their pencils and look at the economic return.

“We need to also look at what we spend on our crops on a per acre basis. Let’s say we buy a $5,000 UAV, it’s a lot of money and a big thing to make up that income, but if you farm 1,000 acres and fly over them twice, that’s only $2.50 per acre,” Boucher said.

“We spent a lot more than $2.50 an acre on a lot more frivolous things that don’t really add up to a lot, frankly. When you really pencil it out, it’s really not very expensive for what you get out of it for the value of piece of mind and knowing what’s going on out in your field on a very quick and personal level it helps out quite a bit.”

Gaff concurred with the peace of mind a UAV delivers, saying it’s more beneficial to know what’s happening in the field now rather than wait until the combine rolls.

Randy Aberle of Gibson City, who also uses UAVs, joined the panel discussion and gave an example where it paid off for a friend whose corn was damaged by hail last fall.

The preliminary estimate was hail damage was limited to five to seven acres.

“Flying over it they found 20 some acres of damage. That right there paid for the ship,” Aberle said.

Safety First

The panelists stressed the importance of safety when using UAVs.

“You can do a lot of damage really fast whether it’s to property, yourself or someone else. Be aware of your surroundings and what your capabilities are,” Aberle said.

Due to the growing interest, the U.S. Congress directed the Federal Aviation Agency to write regulations on how UAV technology can be used for commercial purposes and specify restrictions for their use. The guidelines are to be completed by the end of the year.

Guidelines currently in place include that UAVs cannot be used for commercial purposes or rented to other farmers for a fee, they can only be used on the owner’s property and fly under 400 feet, be a considerable distance from people and buildings, be flown no closer than five miles from an airport and also be within the operator’s eyesight.

“The FAA has been dragging their feet (establishing regulations), but we have to be very cautious that we don’t do something to set them off on the wrong foot,” Hughes said.

“You have to use common sense and be respectful of people and property and when people tell you to quit flying, then quit flying. It’s just like spraying. We try to be respectful to our neighbors.”