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Holy Batman! Drones Can Help Farmers

BY Alan Perlman
21 August 2015


Joshua Olds 2

Joshua Olds, director of flight operations for Waypoint Global Strategies, explains Friday how healthier crops can be maintained with the help of aerial photographs taken from drones during a demonstration at Grandview Farm near Tappahannock.

Batman might have suffered a touch of tech envy if he’d been at Southern States’ drone demonstration.

The sleek, Swiss-made Unmanned Aerial System, or UAS, that soared back and forth over a soybean field near Tappahannock on Friday looked like something that might have flown straight out of his Batcave.

But this SenseFly eBee was sending photos to a sophisticated computer program that stitched them together into a “roadmap” of sorts. Farmers can use these to pinpoint areas of their fields that are thriving or need help. The software can’t detect pests, at least those of the insect variety, just yet—but that’s coming.

“What we want to do is make it easy for you to get the data so we can go out to the field and make a decision [about what to do],” Dave Swain, manager of Southern States’ precision agriculture program, told the two dozen local farmers, Southern States representatives and others attending the demonstration.

Southern States has been offering farmers aerial views of farm fields taken by satellite, which provides a broad view, and plane, which can get more detail, as part of its precision agriculture program for a year and a half. With these in hand, experts can go out into a field to take soil and plant tissue samples in problem areas and offer a solution.

The Federal Aviation Administration paved the way for a third option that offers even finer detail in less time when it began allowing commercial UAS use with a 333 FAA Exemption this past spring.

Southern States took note and teamed up with Virginia Tech and Waypoint Global Strategies, a Florida-based firm with drone-certified pilots and photo software programs, to explore the possibility of drone use in agriculture. They received an exemption to use a drone for the demonstration, and asked Calvin Haile if it could be held at his soybean field in Dunnsville.

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“I told them it would be interesting to look at,” he said while waiting for Josh Olds, Waypoint’s director of operations, to launch the 1.4-pound drone. “I have had an airplane take photos of my field a couple of years. They would pick places in the field to check for nitrogen levels.”

Olds gave the bat-like drone with a 38-inch wingspan a shake to activate its propeller. With a mosquito-like whine, it took off into the crosswind and began to climb past a flock of swallows skimming the air for insects. He said that birds have been known to attack the drone, but a swipe of a computer keypad can make it execute an evasive barrel roll to stay on mission.

After a flight cut short by an overcast sky and a slight rain, the images it had captured were analyzed and appeared on a 60-inch flat-screen TV set up for the demonstration. Haile’s father, James Haile, asked that it zoom in on a section that they’ve had trouble with for some time. Bare spots in the rows showed up clearly, and some of the surrounding plants were yellowish instead of bright green like others in the field.

Swain said the problem could be caused by soil compaction, which he’d been noticing at a number of farms lately.

Other farmers began peppering Swain and Olds with questions. One wanted to know if the drone could be used to scare away the deer and other wildlife that have being damaging his fields. Olds replied that the eBee could detect where animals were getting into the fields and spot their trails, but the farmer would need a noisier drone to scare them away.

Another farmer asked how long it would take for a drone to photograph a field and give him the results. Olds said that the time it would take to complete the north-to-south and east-to-west trips over a field would depend on the field’s size. But it would take probably take only two or three days to get the photos after the software used GPS coordinates to match up all the pixels.

Southern States is still figuring out a business model for using drones in its precision agriculture program, but it has the potential to help farmers more accurately gauge how much fertilizer and fungicide to use, which can reduce costs and improve yields, Swain said.

Farming is among the more than 20 industries that have received FAA exemptions to operate unmanned aircraft systems commercially in the National Airspace System, according to a report announced July 31 by the nonprofit Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The real estate industry has received the most exemptions, followed by the agriculture and construction industries.

The association estimates that within the first three years, commercial drone usage would create more than 70,000 jobs the United States with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion. By 2025, it foresees more than 100,000 jobs created and economic impact of $82 billion.

Calvin Haile said he could already see the value of drones in agriculture after watching the demonstration.

“We’ve already grid sampled our fields in 2-acre blocks,”
“This would fine-tune it.”

– he said.

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