Robert Blair’s farm is over 100 years old, but the fourth-generation farmer is working to keep it on the bleeding edge of technology. Located near Kendrick, Idaho, the Blair family’s Three Canyon Farms was one of the first farms in the U.S. to use drones.
“People still think of farmers as ‘American Gothic,’ with a pitchfork and chewing straw,” Blair said. “But farmers now use smartphones and precision ag tech.”
Precision agriculture is the use of technology to optimize farms’ production and increase their sustainability by responding to minute variations within fields. For example, farmers may use GPS to plant efficiently, or they may track productivity and the soil types of different areas on their land.
When the Federal Aviation Administration finalizes its regulations for drones, 80 percent of the new market is expected to consist of precision agriculture, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a leading industry group. A $3 billion market for agricultural drones may develop in the first three years after the airspace is cleared, according to the AUVSI’s estimates.
Blair uses drones to help him monitor his crops, which include wheat, garbanzo beans, lentils and barley. The technology lets him get real-time data on crop yields and watch for disease.
He began using unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, in 2006 and was named the PrecisionAg Institute’s Farmer of the Year in 2009. Now he’s working with experts in the aerospace industry and with the University of Idaho’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department to figure out how drones will be integrated into farms in the near future.
Seven miles from the University of Idaho, Washington State University researchers are also preparing for what high-tech farmers will need. “When the airspace market opens, that’s not the time to start research,” said Sindhuja Sankaran, a researcher and assistant professor of agricultural automation engineering at WSU.
Sankaran and a group of researchers at WSU’s Biological Systems Engineering Department study how to monitor crops using different optical sensors mounted on UAS. The cameras use a variety of sensors, including thermal imaging, near-infrared and laser optics, to capture a detailed kaleidoscope of data.
Farmers can use satellite imagery, but that may be hampered by cloud cover and, until recently, was legally limited to 50 cm resolution or less. UAS sensors, Sankaran said, can currently show 2.5 cm per pixel. [Ed. note: Previous version of the story incorrectly stated ‘limited to 50 m resolution’ instead of 50 cm.]
Another part of her research is developing the software necessary to harvest useful information from the raw data. The data needs to be analyzed and translated to help a grower or plant breeder understand the crop, Sankaran said.
Lav R. Khot works with Sankaran on agricultural automation engineering and was one of the first WSU researchers to start looking at how agriculture could use drones. In his office sits an eight-armed hobby-class UAS known as an octocopter, ordered over the Internet from a German company.
Khot assembled the pieces and calibrated it to test out a variety of digital cameras. But the drone can’t be officially used until the FAA issues a certificate of authorization , Khot said.
“Only noncommercial groups can even apply for a COA,” he said. “If you can make one cent from using it, the present laws will stop you.”
The FAA has issued COAs to some public agencies that use drones for law enforcement, border patrol, firefighting and other activities. There are no guidelines or authorization yet for farmers who want to use UAS, but the FAA allows small drones to be flown recreationally, according to the rules for model aircraft.
Other countries, such as Japan, have used UAS in agriculture for 20 years, Khot said. According to the AUVSI, 90 percent of Japan’s crop dusting was done by unmanned systems in 2011. The mountainous terrain and aging population of farmers in Japan made farming with land-based systems difficult and spurred a change that American farmers have been slow to follow.
Because most of America’s farming is done on very flat ground, tractors and other land equipment worked fine to manage and observe crop conditions. But with the size of modern farms, drones are starting to make more sense, Khot said.