Aerial imaging technology has improved greatly in recent years and is providing new ways to monitor fields for making crop and soil management decisions, according to the On-Farm Network.

One emerging adaptation of this technology involves unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) that can offer many benefits. The On-Farm Network, a program of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) that focuses on precision agriculture tools and technology, has worked with Rory Paul with Volt Aerial Robotics in St. Louis, MO, to study the possibilities.

Paul uses a small four-rotor helicopter with an on-board high resolution camera with a live link back to a computer on the ground, so the operator can see what the camera saw in real time and guide the drone across the field. With the right electronics package, the drone can be programmed to go to specific GPS coordinates.

“This gives you a bird’s-eye view of the field, much faster and easier than walking through the field with a hand-held GPS unit to get to a problem area, reports the ISA.

Prices vary widely
Another system uses a fixed wing airplane with a high-resolution camera. A ground resolution of approximately 3 inches makes it possible to see individual plants and detect lodging in corn, row by row. With this system, Paul can shoot aerial images of a 200-acre field in a few passes, mapping the entire field in about 20 minutes.

Depending on the level of sophistication built into the system, and your willingness to build the drone from a kit, add your own camera and electronics, etc., Paul says prices range from about $2,000 to nearly $100,000.

Be aware of FAA guidelines 
Despite the apparent value these technologies bring to agriculture, there are still challenges to be navigated, reports the On-Farm Network. The use of drones falls in the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), which is developing rules for using commercial drones in the United States.

To date, use of drones for commercial purposes in airspace under FAA control is strictly prohibited.

“You need no special licensing or training to operate one for your own use at this time, but with the potential to fly into commercial airspace, there may eventually be a need to license operators and require them to file flight plans, just as commercial and private pilots are now required to do,” reports the On-Farm Network.

By Press