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Farmers delve into drone technology

September 4th, 2018

Doug LeDuc | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

A clear sky and gentle breeze provided nearly perfect conditions for an unmanned aerial vehicle demonstration following an August field day at the Northeast Purdue Agricultural Center near Columbia City.

Northeast Indiana farmers attending the event had a chance to see the small, multi-rotor vehicles with onboard cameras in action, and learn more about the cost-efficient crop monitoring technology, which has shown potential to transform agriculture.

“This is perhaps the biggest innovation in agricultural technology I’ve seen,” Bob Nielsen, a Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service corn specialist for 36 years, said in an announcement for the demonstration. “The possibilities for data collection are tremendous.”

“A vital part of our Purdue Extension mission is to research new agricultural technologies and help farmers develop best practices to use those technologies to their greatest capabilities,” Jason Henderson, director of Purdue Extension, said in the statement. “Farmers have traditionally been early adapters of new technologies. Even in the early days of heavier-than-air flight, many farmers learned to fly and found a way to use those primitive aircraft to spray crops and scout fields.”

The demonstration was led by Shaun Casteel, a Purdue Extension soybean agronomist who had provided an update for the field day on the crop’s progress. He was assisted by extension educators including Crystal Van Pelt, from Steuben County, and Bill Horan, from Wells County.

They were all flying quad-copters, and that’s what Casteel was recommending to farmers who were interested in learning how to use drones.

“Those are really pretty easy to learn because they’re user friendly; they give that interface and that guidance that I’m not going to fly into my truck or I’m not going to hit the ground,” he said. “They’ve got obstacle avoidance; they’ve got stabilization for hovering so you don’t actually have to fly it. You can leave it and keep it in that hovering position.”

Accidents can happen, but as far as the time to learn in those types of drones, they make it much easier.

“It really doesn’t take long at all,” Casteel said. “it’s just a matter of trying to fine-tune your skills, from handling the joysticks to handling the video toggles, and going from there. You get really excited about it and you just keep on learning.”

The extension educators were working with Phantom 4 Pro drones, which Casteel said have become an industry standard. He said it is good to have at least two or three rechargeable batteries for a drone because a single battery provides about 20 minutes of flight time.

Farmers and agricultural consultants have to be certified to use drones for a business. Preparing for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 certification requires some study time, but there are several good resources for that purpose, from print and online study guides to Youtube videos.

There are a variety of approaches to take with the drones. A live approach allows a user to see on a smart phone, in a little courser resolution, what the drone is showing in real time. It uses the phone’s GPS capabilities to pinpoint the exact spot it is viewing in the field.

“You can record if you want to or you can switch it to manual for just still pictures like you’d take with your phone or anything else, and then you can say, ‘there’s a spot that looks a little off,’” Casteel said. “I don’t need a stitch-flight to see that spot is low and weak in color, so I’ll go scout. Like today, I saw some spots that are yellowing or brown, so I went to those spots and I just hovered down closer and closer to see what kind of symptomology was there. And then we can go beyond that and say I want to walk to that spot and pick up the plants and see what’s going on.”

With a stitch-flight, operators have a flight plan set up for shooting hundreds of photos, depending on the size of the field, then use software to stitch the photos together into a big picture with good resolution, called an orthomosaic.

“Those hundreds of pictures get stitched together like a puzzle piece, and then you’ve got a really well-defined single picture that you can zoom into with high resolution on spots in the field,” Casteel said.

“Say you’ve got hail damage on the field. You can go up and you can survey how bad it is in that field. Then you can go to stitch-map, and you can actually draw the boundary of what’s the worst area, so you’ve got an acreage straight away that you can go to your hail adjuster with and say, ‘Here’s what’s most damaged,’ so we can go to those spots and do the assessment.”

The stitch-flight software requires an annual subscription of $300 to $1,000, and does all the stitching, auto-corrections and flight planning for users, based on the information they provide for what they want to accomplish, he said. The bird and extra batteries come to about $2,000. The license costs about $150.

The technology is new enough that Casteel and Van Pelt estimate less than 10 percent of northeast Indiana’s farmers are using it.

“There was a huge excitement with new technology, then there was, I’d say after, a little bit of a lull,” Casteel said. “There’s a lot of good, practical applications; we want to get to the point of being able to make (more) decisions with it, and I think that’s some of the Holy Grails that are out there.

“There are some things that are turnkey right now, but then there’s … some of that kind of futuristic, hopeful stuff, where folks are working on that right now, but it’s not available.”

Purdue Extension had scheduled eight field day drone demonstrations at locations across the state during July, August and September.  Click here for more information.

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