Upper Midwest farmers employ drone technology


Dan Gunderson, MPR News

“Once you get experience with it, it takes about five to ten minutes to do the setup, so it’s a pretty simple process,” said Erickson, an agricultural economics major at North Dakota State University.

He then threw the three-pound drone into the air, and it started it on a preset pattern over the field.

The flight is entirely automated. The drone receives instructions from a laptop perched on the tailgate of Erickson’s pickup truck as it cruises 400 feet above the field at 30 miles per hour.

But it isn’t a toy. The drone and cameras cost landowner and farmer Poulson about $25,000. But he expects the investment to quickly pay off in improved efficiency.

Questions on legality

Under federal regulations, drones cannot be used for commercial use, Federal Aviation Administration officials say.

Poulson, however, thinks his use of the drone is allowed because it’s flying over his property. As there are no requirements that small drones be registered, no one tracks how many are in use.

But drone use is exploding this year, North Dakota State University Professor John Nowatzki said.

“In North Dakota and Minnesota, there are hundreds of farmers’ fields that are being flown in 2014 with unmanned aircraft,” he said. “And they’re being flown in a commercial basis so it’s certainly not under the rules of the FAA.”

In some cases, Nowatzki said, farmers are flying their own small drones. But there are also businesses flying drones for hire. It’s likely both are not permitted under FAA rules.

Using the drone data

The aircraft take high resolution and infrared photos.

Nowatzki said there can be hundreds of photos from one field. All of that data needs to be transferred to a computer server for analysis.

“Transferring the data is a big issue,” he said. “I’ve spent an hour and a half just uploading the data from one field to the Internet.”

Farmers will fly their fields several times a year. Poulson said he plans five to seven flights over his land. Flying before crops are planted allows him to map wet areas, or spot plugged drain tile.

When the corn in this field is about three inches tall, he’ll fly it again.

After the photos are analyzed, the computer will tell him how many plants per acre sprouted and pinpoint any thin spots. That data can help a farmer better manage fertilizer application, saving money and perhaps increasing yield.

Later in the season, the unmanned aerial vehicle will help find weedy spots and analyze the size of the corncobs across the field, giving a preview of crop yield.

“It’s helping us make better decisions in real time,” Poulson said. “So I just view a UAV as another tool that should be sitting in your shed somewhere that comes out when it’s the appropriate time, to help maximize your farming productivity.”

But the benefits of drones on the farm are still developing.

NDSU researchers are testing equipment that allows a farmer to fly over a herd of cattle and check each animal’s temperature, providing early warning of illness or identifying a cow’s peak fertility for breeding.

Nowatzki, the NDSU professor, is working on research using infrared photographs for early detection of insects or crop disease. That means farmers can respond more quickly and reduce the amount of crop lost to disease or pest.

“We’ll be able to pick up those disease symptoms before a person walking in the field could pick them up,” Nowatzki said. “With an infrared image for example, be able to see the damage before you see it with your eyes.”