Beginning this fall, agriculture students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale have the opportunity to learn about the next game-changing agricultural tool before it takes off – literally. 

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones as they are popularly known -- are in hover mode and poised to change farming. Christopher Clemons and Dennis Watson, faculty members in the College of Agricultural Sciences, are preparing a course of study to help SIU students become leaders in the newest agricultural technology. 

Beginning this fall, students can take a course introducing them to unmanned aerial vehicles and applications, including learning about UAV types for agricultural use; maintenance and repair; remote sensing attachments and use of lens filters for UAV scouting; and operating and application of the data gathered for agricultural use. Clemons and Watson expect the course of study will supplement the agricultural systems and education major. 

“The most obvious application is for precision agriculture,” Clemons said. “But UAV technology has applications for all our majors.” 

What are UAVs and why use them for farming?

Unmanned aerial vehicles come in three main varieties: fixed wing, multi-rotor and hybrid. SIU is beginning its foray into UAVs with multirotor models. These models can hover, which contributes to more stable pictures and a closer inspection of a field or pasture. In addition, they take off and land without a landing strip. They tend to be shorter range, however, than the fixed wing counterparts. 

Most of the discussions about unmanned aerial vehicles and agriculture center on precision agriculture. Precision agriculture uses global positioning system (GPS) and other data to allow farmers to manage smaller units within their fields, enabling them to customize fertilizer, water and disease-control for the areas of the field that need it. 

Right now, most unmanned aerial vehicles intended for agricultural use are data-gatherers. Equipped with a high definition camera and the specific lenses and filters, UAVs gather information on stress-level in plants, calculate areas of weather or disease damage and help farmers predict yield. 

Other applications for agriculture include assisting livestock producers by assessing forage health for grazing rotation, or measuring canopy health or tree density for foresters. 

Watson demonstrated the ease with which an operator can control an unmanned aerial vehicle using a tablet screen and a controller that looks like a video game controller. The 3D Robotics Solo model that SIU uses flies straight up to a level of about 10 feet and hovers until the controller establishes a flight plan. The controller can fly manually, establish an automatic-flight, GPS-based or engage a “follow-me” mode. The UAV carries a camera that takes a series of pictures. Watson said he uploads the images into a software program that stitches them together to make a large image of the entire flight pattern area. 

Some farmers might invest in UAVs of their own, while others might hire out to precision agriculture consulting companies, several of which are already taking off. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group representing UAV manufacturers and users, predict that 80 percent of the commercial UAV market will eventually be agriculture. Similar predictions forecast more than 100,000 jobs in the UAV market by 2025 and an economic impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars. 

“We are at the brink of the next technological revolution for agriculture,” Clemons said. “This is similar to the time when farmers first began using GPS technologies to improve farming techniques and efficiency. We want our students to be ready for this. We want them to graduate ready to walk into a career already knowledgeable about UAVs. It’s going to be the fastest-growing area for agricultural professionals.” 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and the Future

At present, unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned aerial systems (the drone and its controls) occupy an uncertain position within Federal Aviation Administration rules. Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 permits the Secretary of Transportation to authorize, on a case-by-case basis, operations for unmanned aerial systems for commercial use. So far, the FAA has granted 822 petitions. 

Unmanned aerial vehicles for agricultural purposes typically have the advantage of intended use in low-risk, low population environments. Still, the FAA’s proposed rule calls UAV operators “pilots” and requires a current aeronautical knowledge test and unmanned aerial systems operator certification. While the rules are not yet final, the SIU College of Agricultural Sciences is preparing for the inevitability of UAVs on farms and agricultural industries. 

“We’re reaching out to our SIU aviation program to see if they can help our students take the course that leads to the aeronautical knowledge test,” Watson said. “Our students, and farmers generally, meanwhile can use UAVs as a hobby, steering clear of the commercial use that would be a violation of the FAA regulations, and they can learn about the different models, UAV operation, photography and other data collection and the software that will help them tie it all together.” 

“We’re developing students and future agricultural professionals who make decisions based on data,” Clemons said. “We’re still teaching what we call ‘ground truthing’ because there isn’t a substitute for that. But these UAVs will change the scope of agriculture for all of our students. We’re anticipating even that agricultural educators will need to be able to teach UAV technology in high school, and we are taking steps to develop curriculum for secondary agriculture education programs.

“The aerial data is going to be an extension of the GPS data that is already available in planters and combines and tractors,” Clemons added. “Flying a UAV is very little different from playing X-box. Our incoming students are already aware of the technology.” 

Watson said industry partners are crucial to keeping the hottest, newest agricultural technology in students’ hands. In turn, he said, the university will turn out students who are immediately ready to step into leadership positions. 

“We’re not going to wait, we’re going to begin preparing our students now,” he said. “The technology is here and it is advancing, and we want our students in the front of it.”