Unmanned Aircraft See Hype At Northern Ag Expo

Story by Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — With the 2016 crops in the bin, and farms buttoned down for the winter, the 2017 crop was a hot topic at the Northern Ag Expo, which started Tuesday and continues through Wednesday in Fargo, N.D.

The show, which typically brings in 4,000 to 6,000 attendees in its two-day run, is an annual display and discussion of what’s to come in crop production. Rainy weather helped boost crowds, and speakers at the opening day of the event talked about new tools that have farmers excited, and discussed the avoidance of pitfalls during a time of low commodity prices.

Nate Dorsey, an agronomist who supervises a team of precision agriculture specialists for RDO Equipment, talked about the changes for farmers who want to use drones (also called unmanned aerial vehicle systems or UAVs) in their production. Regulations have changed in the past year to lay out the rules for using drones legally for professional use.

“Now that there’s some concrete regulations by the FAA, I think there’s more interest in agriculture about using drones for commercial operations,” he said. RDO has been developing drone marketing as a way for their customers to make better decisions in farming practices. The technology itself hasn’t changed much from a year ago, he said.

“What I feel has changed the most is software and companies like John Deere, through their John Deere Operations Center, allowing the imagery being able to flow in and to their tractors, which was not supported a year ago,” he said.

Decision-driver

Dorsey said some farmers who are technology savvy will be capable of adopting the technology on their own. Others might go through an agronomist or another organization and pay them for their services. Either way, it will probably make farmers more profitable and efficient, he said, adding that within a decade he can envision a world in which drones can either apply herbicides or other solutions, or communicate with a UAV that makes decisions without an agronomist telling them what to do.

“I’m really excited for the next ten years,” Dorsey said.

John Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural engineer, gave an update on a large-scale UAV experiment in Traill and Steele counties, made possible by cooperation between NDSU, the University of North Dakota, and Elbit, an Israeli drone-maker, to conduct large-scale drone experiments.

Nowatzki said the experiment was in part funded by the Legislature with a one-to-one private match. He said the experiment has shown the drone can work safely and deliver high-accuracy images at 20,000 acres an hour. But some farmers are concerned about privacy issues for experimental data. If a farmer wanted to allow the scientists access to their farm production records, a citizen or company (crop insurance or marketing company, for example) could seek the information through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Nowatzki said NDSU officials would like legislators to consider some kind of exemption to state FOIA rules to allow experimentation without releasing individual planting and harvest data to the public or companies that might want to use it. The first thing farmers will get from drones is an ability to manage nutrient deficiencies on some crops, such as corn, sugar beets and sunflowers. Variable-rate, in-season maps available on cell phones will allow farmers to put fertilizers only where they’re needed.

Cool resistance

New NDSU research showing how using drones with heat sensors could help farmers discover and manage herbicide-resistant weeds. Nowatzki thinks weeds that were susceptible to herbicides will start to dry and will have a higher temperature than weeds that are resistant to the chemicals.

Tom Peters, an NDSU and University of Minnesota Extension Service sugar beet weed specialist, said farmers are very excited about new, low-volatility formulations of dicamba herbicide that could help head off weed resistance in soybeans, but are concerned about sensitive crops and environmental conditions.

“The label is the most complex document I’ve ever seen,” he said, and farmers need to be very careful to avoid harming their neighbors.

Peters said there are buffer zones and rules about applying them in the wind. “We haven’t dealt with buffers before. Buffers are dependent on the herbicide rates and also on the wind direction,” he said, adding there will be a big educational effort this winter.

Large-scale, fast-flying fixed-wing drones are collecting data quickly, but so far can remotely estimate, such as plant populations, to a 74 percent accuracy level, while slower drones can estimate the true population at a 92 percent accuracy — very accurate. The faster and larger drones are showing promise for monitoring nitrogen deficiencies, and future experiments could help correlate aerial data on harvest yields.