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Drones lead way in precision agriculture

Consider the technological possibilities in agricultural that lie just beyond the horizon.

Fully autonomous farm equipment that seed and harvest crops under control from a distant laptop computer. Unmanned aerial drones that can monitor crops throughout their growth cycle and apply precise amounts of pesticides or herbicides exactly where and when they are needed. Smart ear tags that alert the rancher whenever a cow, horse, sheep or pig appears to be sick or in distress – and then transmit the animal’s exact location.

Is it all some futuristic flight of fancy? Perhaps, but the technology to make all these things possible is nearing reality.

In August, CNH International, the parent company of both Case IH and New Holland Agriculture, unveiled an autonomous concept tractor at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa. Employing radar, LiDAR (light imaging, detection and ranging) and on-board video cameras, the Case IH Magnum can sense both stationary and moving obstacles in its path and automatically adjusts for implement widths to plot the most efficient route. It’s designed to operate unmanned and around the clock, controlled remotely via a desktop computer or portable tablet. It doesn’t even have a seat.

Japanese farmers are already using drones to apply pesticides in steeply inclined fruit orchards and in flooded rice paddies where access with traditional sprayers is difficult. Researchers at the Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, are developing an infrared laser that can accurately identify emerging weeds by examining their shapes and contours, then kill the sprouts with a low-powered zap to the plant’s growth center.

And smart livestock ear tags are already a reality. Companies like CattleWatch and SMARTRAC offer computerized coils, collars and ear tags capable of detecting and transmitting the physiological condition of each animal every 30 seconds.

Agriculture stands at the doorstep of a new technological revolution, with the potential to increase farm efficiency unlike anything since the “green revolution” of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when the introduction of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides doubled global production of cereal grains.

The work of improving varieties of high-yielding grains, fruits and vegetables will continue, as will the development of more effective and less environmentally damaging herbicides and pesticides. But the next revolution in agriculture will almost certainly be driven by the introduction of new precision farming techniques that are almost surgical in their application.

Robert Blair stands in his field of winter wheat holding a Sensefly ebee Ag drone, the primary UAV he uses to monitor crops on his farm. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Robert Blair)

“We are at the forefront of the information revolution,” Robert Blair said. “On my farm we’re using that information to drive the tractor and to plant precise quantities of seeds in different locations. Using other data, we’re able to better understand how to manage our crops and lower our input costs.”

Blair, 47, is a fourth-generation farmer who runs a 1,300-acre dryland wheat, barley and pulse crop farm near Lewiston, Idaho. Less than two decades ago, when Robert took over daily operations on the family farm, the Blair farm’s financial records were still written out in longhand.

Today, Blair is a nationally recognized advocate of precision agriculture. On his own farm he employs cutting-edge technologies like variable density planters, variable rate chemical sprayers and unmanned aerial vehicles (frequently referred to as drones) to conduct real-time crop analytics.

Blair is a recipient of the Eisenhower Fellowship for emerging leaders, he was awarded a McCloy Fellowship in agriculture and sits on the University of Idaho’s College of Ag Science Advisory Committee. On Oct. 22, Blair spoke at the 101st annual convention of the Montana Farmers Union to explain the growing potential for UAVs in agriculture, in a presentation he refers to as “the unmanned farmer.”

“We have to learn and adapt,” Blair told the audience of perhaps 100 Montana farmers, “but most importantly, we have to learn to set goals. What do we want this new technology to do?”

The seeds of precision agriculture were first sown nearly a quarter century ago. In 1992, the company Ag Leader Technology introduced the first commercially available grain yield monitor, a device that allows farmers to accurately measure the mass of grain harvested by a combine on an acre-by-acre basis.

With this information, farmers can better understand where their fields are most productive and where problem areas exist. They can then formulate management plans to address any deficiencies.

This was followed by the introduction of auto-steer guidance. Using global satellite navigation systems, machinery operators can now guide their tractors and combines to within a single foot of any plotted location. This can virtually eliminate “slop-space,” putting more rows in a farmer’s fields and increasing his per-acre productivity.

But it’s taken decades for these technologies to become widely accepted.

“It’s been nearly a quarter century before finally these features are becoming standard equipment on a combine,” Blair said. “The first auto-steer unit I dealt with was basically just a little wheel mounted on the steering column with a gyro-compensator installed behind the seat. Now it’s become something that’s standard equipment in the tractors. We’re also starting to get the data and information to work with existing farm equipment.”

The next step is to provide farmers with near-real-time data on crop growth, plant health, emerging weeds and insect damage. Armed with more and better information, farmers will be able to target specific areas of their fields to apply pesticides and fertilizer more precisely, adjust irrigation to precisely match crop needs and even remotely monitor livestock as they are grazing.

Much of this new information is becoming available because of continuing advances in drone technology.

Deer and elk tracks through Robert Blair’s wheat fieldDeer and elk tracks through Robert Blair’s wheat field are clearly shown in this photograph taken by a UAV. The photograph proved to be critical evidence in Blair’s successful effort to obtain crop damage payments. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Robert Blair)

The promise: Multiple point crop analysis

While grain yield monitors have proven themselves as valuable tools, Blair notes they are limited because they only measure the productivity of a field at harvest.

“The difference between utilizing a UAV versus a yield monitor is that a yield monitor is reactive data,” Blair said in a 2016 interview for the expouav trade journal. “The crop has matured and died, and we’re harvesting the seeds, so we can no longer do anything to affect the outcome of that crop for that growing season because we’re harvesting it. UAVs enable us to get proactive data that allow us to make better management decisions.”

Equipped with a range of sensors and cameras, a drone can take measurements that extend beyond visible light. Some sensors can identify specific weed species, or create 3-D models that display plant heights and population densities. The information can then be transmitted to combines and sprayers, directing them to problem spots and cutting down on the amount of water and chemicals that a farmer needs to address those problems.

“If you can identify weeds before the crop canopy is over, then you can make informed management decisions,” Blair told the Tribune. “Instead of spraying 100 percent of the field, I’m spraying 30 percent now because I’m spraying exactly where it is needed instead of across the whole field. That’s huge – to be able to identify those areas to treat before the treatment takes place.”

Blair predicts that most producers could lower their chemical input costs by 15 to 25 percent using these applications. That could easily amount to tens of thousands of dollars in savings on an average size farm, while reducing chemical runoff into surrounding uncultivated areas.

This aerial image of a wheat field has been enhancedThis aerial image of a wheat field has been enhanced to show plant population densities. Good stands of winter wheat appear gray, thinner stands are red, and bare earth appears yellow. Armed with the knowledge gained with images like these, ag producers can adjust their seed rates to compensate in areas of low productivity and thus improve overall crop yield. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Robert Blair)

The problem: Imperfect technology and insufficient bandwidth

The existing generation of optical sensors are already adept at identifying broad-leaf weeds like Canada thistle and spotted knapweed, but the technology is more challenged when it comes to spotting grassy weeds like wild oats and cheat grass.

“Wheat is a grass,” Blair points out. “One thing that’s very hard is to distinguish a grassy weed in a grassy crop. Whatever type of grassy weed is out there — they’re all going to be very similar in that spectrum of light. Where are they located in the spectrum? But as we move forward you will begin to see better cameras with better sensing capabilities out there.”

While the sensing capabilities of drones are likely to improve with time, a greater obstacle to will be getting all that information into a farmer’s hands in a timely manner.

The explosive growth of wireless communications has exposed the insufficiency of wireless infrastructure in many rural areas. It’s hard to get reliable cell service in many parts of Montana, and the existing infrastructure is insufficient to transmit the large packages of data UAVs are currently capable of delivering.

“I have a 0.5 Mbit/s upload speed and I’m trying to put 50 or 60 gigabytes through that?” Blair said of his digital service in Idaho. “We’re trying to collect a fire hose worth of data through a straw in rural America, and we simply can’t do it.”

“If I can’t get that information from the UAV into the cab of a tractor to make management decisions, that information’s no good. They have to work in conjunction, and at this time unfortunately, we simply don’t have the infrastructure to handle this.”

The promise: Relaxed federal guidelines on UAV operation

For the past decade the Federal Aviation Administration has struggled with how to regulate UAVs. Except for a few limited exemptions, U.S. airspace remained closed to the commercial use of drones and any operator wanting a permit for commercial applications was also required to obtain a private pilot’s license.

Those rules effectively quashed the use of drones as a commercial tool. Hobbyists were free to do a fly-over analysis of their backyard vegetable patch, but if a commercial producer used the same technology to monitor the health of a crop he planned to sell in the fall, in most cases he was probably violating federal law.

On Aug. 29 of this year, the FAA finally approved long-awaited revisions to its rules on the operation of unmanned aircraft.

Currently UAVs may weigh no more than 55 pounds, may not fly higher than 400 feet or at speeds in excess of 100 mph, can only be operated during daylight hours and must remain within the line of sight of their operator. Most significantly. however, commercial operators no longer need to obtain a fully fledged private pilot’s license but can legally operate a UAV for commercial purposes after obtaining the much less intensive “remote pilot airman certificate.”

A quadcopter hovers over a field of garbanzo beansA quadcopter hovers over a field of garbanzo beans in central Idaho. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Robert Blair)

The problem: America’s crowded skies

The United States has both the most pilots and the most congested airspace in the world. The prospect of collisions between manned aircraft and UAVs was the greatest obstacle to amending regulations on commercial drone applications, and it remains a serious concern. In particular, crop dusters and the professional organizations that represent them have expressed uneasiness about a sudden proliferation of drones within the low-altitude air space.

“Near misses between agricultural aircraft and UAVs are not uncommon,” said Christian Rice, coordinator of Public Relations for the National Agricultural Aviation Association. “If a mallard weighing less than 3 pounds can crash through a manned aircraft window and injure, if not kill a pilot, a 55-pound UAV would certainly be deadly.”

The NAAA is pushing for technological requirements for UAVs that would allow manned aircraft pilots to know when a UAV is nearby, and also encourages UAV operators to use strobes to allow pilots to see them.

Both Rice and Blair agree that consistent communication between UAV operators and traditional aircraft pilots is key to reducing the risk of accidents.

“Our hope is that farmers using UAVs will inform agricultural pilots of their whereabouts so there aren’t any collisions,” Rice said.

The promise: Widespread use of UAV technology in ag within five years

In its most recent forecast of aerospace trends, the Federal Aviation Administration predicted that by 2020 there will be 7 million unmanned aerial vehicles in the United States, outnumbering conventional manned aircraft by more than 30 to 1.

Smaller, hobbyist models are expected to make up the bulk of that, but as many as 2.7 million drones will find their way into commercial applications including industrial inspection, real estate, aerial photography and for insurance adjustments. More than half a million drones are expected to be actively used for agricultural purposes, one for every four farms in the country.

This headlong rush into drone technology comes with a few precautions.

“I’ve seen a lot of companies trying to sell a product to farmers even though they don’t understand agriculture,” Blair said. “It’s unfortunate we’ve had so many manufacturers and service providers overselling what could be done with the technology and the services.”

In addition to managing his Idaho farm operation, Blair also serves as the vice president of agriculture for Measure, a drone service provider headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Measure is among a growing list of companies that don’t sell drones but offer their expertise in operating them to companies and individuals who aren’t immediately interested in owning and operating their own drone.

“It comes down to time and expertise,” Blair said. “When you start flying UAVs, it takes time away from your farming operation or from your family. Do you really want another job (learning to fly a UAV) or do really just want the information?”

Then there’s the cost. A commercially appropriate UAV with all the cameras, sensors and software capable of interpreting the data currently costs between $30,000 and $40,000 — and if you’re not an experienced pilot, there’s a strong possibility of catastrophic crashes.

“Why would I want to put that type of investment into a technology that’s going to evolve and change quickly, instead of hiring to have it done and work with the data?” Blair asked. “Then you have liability issues and federal regulations.”

Blair foresees a new model of agricultural production developing in the United States, one that involves a more collaborative approach in which individual farms share technological resources.

“The business model I see is not necessarily implement dealerships and agriculture service providers working with the individual farmer, but rather working with a company or an organization they have a bond with,” he said. “It might be the local farmers co-op, maybe it’s an organization like the Montana Farmers Union. Your working through that company to fly for their customers, and that’s how you reach the growers.”

On Aug. 29, Case IH unveiled a concept model of itsOn Aug. 29, Case IH unveiled a concept model of its new autonomous tractor at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa. Employing radar, LiDAR (light imaging, detection, and ranging) and onboard video cameras, the Case IH Magnum can sense both stationary or moving obstacles and automatically adjusts for implement widths to plot the most efficient route. (Photo: Courtesy CNH Industrial and Case IH)

The problem: Change is hard

The continued consolidation of small farms into larger properties, labor shortages that force many producers to import farm workers from hundreds if not thousands of miles away, the astronomical expense of replacing sophisticated farm equipment; all these trends suggest that in the future, farmers will have to rely more upon automation and computer analytics then time behind the wheel of a tractor and a “from-your-gut” sense for making things grow.

That’s not always a welcome prospect.

“On the one hand, government officials, agricultural input suppliers, and the media have trumpeted the efficiency and productivity of large, mechanized farms and the fact that less than 2 percent of our population now works on farms,” wrote Diane May Mayerfeld in a report for the University of Wisconsin. “On the other hand, there is a growing sense that these trends have gone too far. The shrinking number of farms in America no longer represents people liberated from the drudgery of agricultural toil. Instead it brings to mind families forced to leave the land and work they love by falling agricultural prices and rising costs of production.”

Blair admits to encountering some resistance, especially from older farmers, to implementing technologies that seem to continue to take producers further away from the soil. However, if the threat to the American family farm is low prices and rising costs, then farmers must take advantage of every opportunity available to make their operations more efficient.

“I enjoy my time in the dirt,” Blair said. “I enjoy my time on the tractor, riding on a combine and bringing in a crop that you’ve nurtured throughout the season working with your family. There’s no greater job in life than that, and precision agriculture is one way to ensure that both me and my children can keep on doing it.”

(Source – http://www.farmingportal.co.za/index.php/component/k2/item/8857-drones-lead-way-in-precision-agriculture)

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