Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a… drone?

Gliding gracefully above rows of cotton and soybeans, the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) wasn’t faster than a speeding bullet; nor was it more powerful than a locomotive. But drones like the fixed-wing unit that Southern States Cooperative recently demonstrated are beginning to leap farms with a single bound.

Southern States partnered with Florida-based technology firm Waypoint Global Strategies last month to conduct two FAA-approved UAS demonstrations at farms in Virginia and Georgia.

Dozens of local farmers and media members gathered in curiosity to see the UAS take flight.

In eager anticipation, the crowd watched intently as Waypoint’s director of flight operations, Josh Olds, shook the 1.4-lb. drone, activating its propeller and preparing it for liftoff. Flung into the air as if it were a kite, the Swiss-made SenseFly eBee climbed capably above the crops and began collecting data.

Farmers have typically relied on walking their fields, using their eyes and instincts to identify troubled spots on their land. But if you have hundreds—or thousands—of acres of land, this may not be practical. Drones and other forms of aerial imagery are becoming a farmer’s eyes in the sky, and the technology is helping farmers scout fields more efficiently.

“UASs will drive agriculture by delivering useful information to enhance crop yields,” said Southern States Vice President of Agronomy Technology, Danny Dillon. “Crop scouting with a UAS can reduce the labor of walking fields and offer information that would be hard to collect—especially in taller crops. It has the potential to identify pest, disease, and yield potential of a crop,” he added.

Drones are able to provide very detailed types of data and show production details at the time of flight and create even more detailed production trends over time.

“It can provide information at less than two centimeters resolution,” said Dave Swain, precision ag manager for Southern States. “This has the ability to show minute details down to the individual plant or insect.”

The farm-supply cooperative has been offering growers aerial and satellite imagery for a number of years, and is now testing UAS technology to see how it can help their customers.

Current aerial imagery manned by an airplane can get down to one meter to one-quarter meter resolution. This imagery can give enough detailed data to help with water, nutrient, soil (compaction) and weed management during production.

Satellite imagery is much broader in detail, but can show a grower larger situations, but no real detail. These images are best used for gaining very broad types of information and showing production trends over time by using historical images.

“In some cases, we’ve seen where the images show differences in the crop before it was visible to the scout in the field,” Swain says. “We can then take tissue, soil and compaction samples to better identify exactly what is happening and better identify the ‘why’ of what is happening, and get a complete picture of what is going on to better address the issue before it impacts yield.”

Waypoint, who employs drone-certified pilots, applied for and received FAA Section 333 clearance for the two demos. The FAA has only granted a little more than 1,000 exemptions, most of which have been for precision ag, real estate photography and movie productions.

Until the spring of 2015 when the 333 Exemption was implemented, use of a commercial UAS was not allowed under FAA regulations. And while the SenseFly eBee is a “self-piloted” unit, the Federal Aviation Administration still requires a pilot with a FAA airman certificate to operate any drone in flight.

“We aren’t pilots, so flying is not what we do,” Dillon noted of Southern States, who has been in the ag business for nearly 100 years. “That is why we have partnered with Waypoint, as their expertise provides excellent data for our customers in a manner that is legal and safe for our communities.”

Southern States is currently working with Waypoint to work through pilot projects for processes and business models for the future as the FAA decides on rules regarding commercial drone use.

Dillon says that Southern States isn’t just jumping into the business without ensuring that it is the best tool for their customers. 

“We want to do what we do best: work with our customers to produce the most profitable crop possible.”

For more information on aerial imagery and precision ag, visit www.southernstates.com/precisionag.