Drones help farmers check on crop progress
The Parrot drone, which cost about $250, can be controlled with a smartphone or tablet using Apple or Android operating systems and Wi-Fi signals. The Parrot came with a protective polystyrene hull for use indoors, and Bowman has demonstrated it during meetings with area farmers.
"When I'm running the Parrot drone during a conference, I pick somebody that looks scared when I pull it out, and I take the iPad over to them and tell them I'm going to have them launch it for me," Bowman said. "You press the screen where it says 'take off' and the drone pops up 3 feet in the air, hovers and waits for you to take over flying it."
"Standard pictures and video taken with drones can tell us a lot," Bowman said. "But what we're looking to give us even more information is multispectral cameras that can give us imagery in other wavelengths, such as near-infrared, to help us identify areas of crop stress. It probably isn't going to tell us what the problem is, but it will tell us where problems are so that we can target our scouting in those specific areas and determine what might be occurring."
Bowman has a Canon Powershot SX260 camera that has been modified and equipped with an upgraded lens for infrared photography, which will help the researchers identify plants in the South Farms' plots that appear to be absorbing or reflecting light differently, an indication that the plants are under some type of stress, such as pests, disease or nutrient deficiencies.
The drones also may be deployed in the battle against Palmer amaranth, an invasive weed that is spreading across the Midwest and has been found on the South Farms. Palmer amaranth is becoming increasingly resistant to herbicides and spreads so prolifically that it could drastically reduce farmers' yield potential in affected fields.
"Before the soybean rows close, or if we get a different spectrum response from some of these weeds as they break through the canopy, we may see some of those weeds show up in the imagery as well to identify where there are hot spots and problems," Bowman said.
Commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. airspace was banned by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2007, although growing numbers of hobbyists have been toying with the use of drones, particularly for aerial photography.
However, facing mounting pressure from agribusiness, retail and other industries, the FAA is expected to release new policies by 2015 that will enable businesses to integrate drones into their operations. The agriculture industry is expected to be one of the largest market segments for drone usage.
"If the FAA rules come through, and the price of the technology comes down, it doesn't seem all that far-fetched to me to think that not too far in the future a farmer will get up in the morning, hit a button and launch a couple drones that fly out over his farms and collect imagery that's sent wirelessly to his office," Bowman said. "And one of the first things he could do at the beginning of the day is sit down and scan his fields to see if anything has happened that needs his attention."
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