Drones help farmers check on crop progress
click image to zoomL. Brian StaufferDrones -- unmanned aerial vehicles -- scout wheat on the university's South Farms. This growing season, crop researchers at the University of Illinois are experimenting with the use of drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – on the university's South Farms.
Dennis Bowman, a crop sciences educator with U. of I. Extension, is using two drones to take aerial pictures of crops growing in research plots on the farms. He presented his findings to farmers and other researchers at the 2014 Ford / Iroquois County Agronomy Day meeting.
Bowman intentionally made mistakes on one test plot – "areas where we didn't apply enough nitrogen fertilizer, where we simulated mistakes in the applicator, where we shut the boom off for a short period of time or plugged it up and ran for a while," Bowman said. "As the crop gets up and going, we'll fly over it and see if we can detect those areas sooner than we could visually from the ground.
"We're also looking at doing some scans over our herbicide studies to see if the drone photography can help us identify where crops are stressed by postemergence herbicide applications."
For farmers, aerial photographs taken by drones offer a quick and easy way to check on the progress of crops and determine where they may need to replant or direct pesticide applications.
"I spent two summers as a commercial crop scout before I went into Extension, and walking through tasseling corn in the heat of summer is not a pleasant task," Bowman said. "The odds of actually getting to the far end of that field on foot to see what's going on are pretty slim. To get a bird's-eye view of your crop, the drones offer a handy way to do it."
Both drones Bowman is using are multirotor helicopters, or quadricopters. Bowman bought the first drone last fall. It's a remote-controlled Phantom, manufactured by the company DJI. This spring, he bought a second aircraft, an A.R. Drone 2.0 with GPS produced by the French wireless electronics manufacturer Parrot.
Using rechargeable lithium polymer batteries, each drone can make flights of about 10 to 15 minutes. The computers in the drones are similar to those used in smartphones.
The Phantom, which cost about $500, was a ready-to-fly model equipped with a mount for a GoPro camera. With the addition of the mount, a camera and a gimbal to keep the camera level, Bowman's total investment was about $1,000.
When the Phantom is turned on, its computer starts the GPS, and the flight control system runs through a one- to two-minute process of locating and locking on to GPS satellites to establish the drone's home position. If launched properly by allowing the flight control system to orient itself with the satellites, the Phantom drone will return to within 1 meter of its home position when the operator turns the transmitter off.
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