BAKERSVILLE – Crop consultants at TMK Bakersville know farmers can try to use planes over their fields or walk through them to find problems, but they think the most efficient method is remotely controlled.
Technology that was once associated with warfare is increasingly being harnessed for civilian purposes, and farmers may stand to gain from drones, or unmanned aircraft systems.
TMK Bakersville, which has owned its own drone for about a year, is at the forefront of drone use in the area. Agronomists, or plant and soil scientists who study how to improve growing crops, at the County Road 97 site near Newcomerstown have been using a drone for field scouting for no charge at farms in Coshocton, Muskingum and Tuscarawas counties.
“We think it’s exciting,” said Don Myers, a retired Ohio State University Extension state agronomist who consults part-time with TMK Bakersville. “We don’t think it’s going to go away.”
TMK crop consultants use the drone to scout fields, looking for dry areas, weeds, insects and other problems, Myers said.
Jake Hillyer, one of the crop consultants, mainly uses the SteadiDrone quadcopter on preprogrammed flights over fields, although he can remotely control it if needed.
He outfitted the 3-pound drone with two cameras: one that records footage of the ground and another that transmits to goggles to give him a view of the flight path.
The vehicle, which Hillyer describes as sounding like a swarm of bees when flying, travels 10 to 15 mph at an altitude of about 200 feet, in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. While Hillyer described learning to fly the drone like learning another language, in the end, he said, “it’s made the process a lot easier and faster.”
This fall, it has helped area farmers by, for example, identifying bur cucumber infestations in crops. Once farmers have the information on the extent of the problem, they can decide how they want to treat it, said Melvin Lahmers, a crop consultant with TMK.
Recently, Hillyer’s use of the drone helped to identify river damage on WenMar Farms in Coshocton and Tuscarawas counties. Excessive rainwater had flooded certain areas of the land, washing away soil and nutrients, said Greg Waters, whose family owns the land. His solution: If it continues, he may need to apply nitrogen at different times of the year to counteract the damage.
While Lahmers, who has a pilot’s license, has been flying manned planes over Waters’ fields for years, the drone helped to more closely identify problems otherwise undetectable.
“We’re just trying to collect every last piece of information,” Waters said. “It’s going to be a major part of scouting for years to come.”
This is the first such use of drones in the area that John Barker, an OSU Extension educator in Knox County who is an expert in drones’ agricultural use, had heard of.
If drones are the future of agriculture and farming, that could have significant implications for Muskingum County which has 1,259 farms, 173,269 acres of farm land, and $58.1 million in sales of crop and livestock, according to a 2012 census of agriculture by the United States Department of Agriculture.
“The potential for this technology is just huge,” Barker said.
But since much of this technology is only now emerging, guidelines for the lawful use of drones do not yet exist.
The FAA is under pressure from Congress to pass regulations by September 2015 related to smaller drones. Rules regarding their commercial use in agriculture could be announced by the end of the year, said Peggy Hall, director of the OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program.
“(The FAA is) getting a lot of pressure to do this because it is such an important technology,” she said, but “right now there’s just an air of uncertainty.”
As of now, it is not legal to use the drones for commercial purposes, although many do. The FAA, Hall said, is not interested in punishing these types of uses, as officials are preoccupied with getting regulations out there.
Hall expects the regulations to outline, for instance, a certification and training process, a size limit for the drone and a height limit during flight, among other things.
The cost of drones can vary from as low as $900 to as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars for military-style devices. While the price may seem steep, as more people use them, they’re becoming more affordable, Hillyer said.
And the technology is changing rapidly. Some drones are able to fertilize plants or use thermal imaging to detect a plant’s heat, Hall said.
“There’s things coming down the pike that continue to be exciting,” Myers said.