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Drones & Sunflower

Thursday, October 29, 2015
filed under: Equipment

Bird control has gone high tech for Rugby, N.D., area sunflower producer Jason Brossart. He’s been using a drone to harass the birds — and it seems to be working.

“I just harass them a little. I can see where the birds have been, and so I basically just swoop down like a hawk and chase them around,” Brossart explains. “The birds don’t necessarily know what it is. They just know there’s something flying around that’s a big as a hawk. It’s little bit of psychological warfare on the birds.”

Brossart didn’t originally purchase his drone for blackbird control. He wanted to take aerial pictures for his seed business and to be able to scout his fields from the air. He considers the blackbird control an added bonus.

“I wouldn’t go tell every producer to go buy a drone to chase birds; but if you have blackbirds, you need to take an integrated approach to manage them. You need to manage your cattails and use some electronic bird screechers because they do a good job of calling the hawks into the field. The hawks scare away the blackbirds,” he says.

A basic drone costs about $500. Brossart paid about $1,300 for his DJI Phantom 3 professional quad copter. The increased price tag also brings a better quality camera and software. Brossart says it’s about the same price he would pay for a bird cannon; and while the cannon has only one use, he’s already discovered lots of uses for his drone.

“I fly it over my fields and take pictures of different things. If I have a field that is leached, I can take the drone up and see it from a different perspective. That’s the biggest benefit right now, just seeing things from a different perspective,” says Brossart. “I’d like to see drones with cameras that take near-infrared images. I think there’s a need for that and farmers would really use that technology.”

Researchers think Brossart may be onto something. Ian MacRae is a professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota, stationed at the UM Northwest Research and Outreach Center in Crookston. He’s spent a lot of time researching drones, also called uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs). He says UAVs are a big part of the future of agriculture — and even predicts that one day they will be as common as tractors.

“UAVs are one of the tools of precision agriculture, and precision agriculture is going to play a huge role in future food production,” MacRae states. “The world’s population is expected to be beyond nine billion by the year 2050. Under our current agriculture systems, we simply can’t feed that many people. We’re using most of the arable land on the planet already, so we need to look at ways to increase efficiency. Drones will provide that.”

MacRae says drones — more specifically, the sensors they hold — have several different probabilities and possibilities.

“I think UAVs will save farmers time and even money,” he observes. “They may still drive the whole field when putting on pesticide, but they won’t have to spray continually. The sensor on the UAVs will give a better idea of where that pesticide is actually needed, so they’ll be able to spray only where needed. Costs for going over the field will be the same, but the cost and amount of chemicals applied is going to drop significantly.”

North Dakota State University extension ag machinery specialist John Nowatzki agrees: drones will be the next “big thing” in agriculture, but not until more research is done.

“There is a lot of research going on,” says Nowatzki. “Researchers at several universities, including NDSU, Texas A&M, Kansas, Cornell and the University of Florida, are working on this. But it’s not that easy. We are starting from scratch; there is no research already done to build on. And we can’t just research one crop and say the same is true for all crops. We need to study sunflower, wheat, corn — every crop. I do think we’ll get there, but it is going to take awhile.”

Nowatzki says farmers in North Dakota are already using drones in their operations. But there are some limits with that use. The Federal Aviation Administration requires drones be flown within eyesight. Nowatzki says farmers need to be able to fly larger areas, areas beyond the line of site. He’s hopeful that change will come soon. The FAA also requires users apply for a commercial exemption, which can be done on the FAA’s website, but it takes about 60 days for the paperwork to be approved. Farmers working with a government agency or a university can also apply for a certificate of authorization to fly their drones.

Despite the regulations, Nowatzki says drones are the future of agriculture. “I think we will get to the point where drones are something used to scout fields. Farmers could use drones to look at emergence and stand count, to determine if fields, or portions of fields, need to be replanted,” he says. “At some point I see drones being used for disease and weed identification as well. We are doing research on herbicide-resistant weeds and on weed infestation. We’d like to be able to give producers a tool that would provide a special map of where weeds are so they don’t have to spray the whole field to control those weeds. They would know exactly which areas need to be sprayed.”

Nowatzki says some farmers are already using drones to do a stand count on crops like sunflower and corn.

“They just save time and help farmers make management decisions,” he says.

Jason Brossart agrees. Plus, he says, flying a drone is pretty fun.

“Flying a drone is kind of like playing a video game,” he explains. “I’m not an expert, though. In fact, before I bought my drone, I’d never flown a remote control anything. I hit a tree the first time I flew it. But within 40 minutes I had it figured out, and I’ve been flying it ever since — without any more crashes.” — Jody Kerzman

Considering a Drone Purchase?

So you’re thinking about buying a UAV? There are a few things to consider before you buy. Here are some tips from NDSU’s John Nowatzki:
  • Think about why you’re buying a drone and what you hope to accomplish with it. If you want to use your drone to scout fields, a roter copter is a better option. But, if you want to collect a map of an entire field, a fixed wing drone is more efficient. Do your homework.
  • Set a budget. Drones range in price from under $100 all the way up to $5,000. Knowing what you will use the drone for will help you decide how much you’re willing to spend on the technology.
  • Decide what kind of imagery you want. If you want vegetative index to know where there might be a nutrient deficiency in your fields, you’ll want a camera that takes red and infrared images. If you want detail and want to be able to look at it the same as how you see it with your eye, that’s a different kind of camera. Some cameras do both, some do not.
  • Know the regulations. Drones come with rules. Know where you can fly and where it’s off limits. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is a good place to start, but make sure you know your local UAV regulations as well.
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