DECATUR, Ill. — The dreaded task of crop scouting can become
much easier with new technology that offers farmers a bird’s-eye view of their
That was the message delivered by producers and agribusiness
representatives at the inaugural Unmanned Aerial Vehicle outdoor exposition at
Progress City USA.
As indicated by the large crowd attending the two-day
Precision Aerial Ag Show, interest in this new technology has been growing at
Manufacturers and suppliers of UAVs and related equipment
demonstrated their “fixed wing” and “rotary (copter) wing” products through the
Among the standing-room-only draws was a panel of farmers
who already have taken off into the UAV realm.
“It’s exciting just to see the pace in which this is coming
along and advancing on farms,” said moderator Max Armstrong, Penton/Farm
Progress Cos. broadcasting director and co-host of the TV show, This Week in
“Some of you are seasoned veterans and fly your own
aircraft. Others probably came here today to see if you want to put your toe
into the water or perhaps share with your neighbor.”
Farmer panelists Judi Graff, Middletown; Matt Hughes,
Shirley; and Matt Boucher, Dwight, are in their first year of using their small
copter-like Phantom 2 equipped with a GoPro camera.
Graff first saw the benefits of her UAV during spring’s
heavy rains when she was able to check how a recently upgraded waterway and
terrace were handling the water.
Hughes said the UAV was purchased primarily for scouting.
“It’s lived up to that. It covers a lot of ground,” said
Hughes, who previously relied on getting a loftier view of his fields by
climbing the grain bin or getting a ride on his neighbor’s airplane.
The Phantom 2 enables Hughes to see the entire field to find
“I have one field that’s one mile long, and I’d never get to
the end of that. Now if I see a problem, (with the UAV) I can make my way down
there,” Hughes said.
Boucher purchased his Phantom 2 in late December.
“It’s my first one, and it will not be my last,” he
Although UAVs can collect aerial views of entire fields,
Boucher said it’s just part of crop management.
“Conventional crop scouting won’t be obsolete any time
soon,” he said.
“When you fly the whole field and see something that isn’t
quite right, we can either hover real close to it and get better pictures or we
know where to walk to. It will save a lot of time.”
Graff said an advantage of having her own UAV is timeliness.
She gave an example of corn that was recently knocked down by wind in northern
“Do you want to wait until someone can look at it next week
or do you want it done tomorrow when you can get to it yourself?” Graff
It also enables farmers to look at their fields throughout
the growing season and into fall to monitor weeds.
UAVs also can be used to recognize specific weeds to aid in
determining a herbicide program.
As with any investment in a farming operation, growers need
to sharpen their pencils and look at the economic return.
“We need to also look at what we spend on our crops on a per
acre basis. Let’s say we buy a $5,000 UAV, it’s a lot of money and a big thing
to make up that income, but if you farm 1,000 acres and fly over them twice,
that’s only $2.50 per acre,” Boucher said.
“We spent a lot more than $2.50 an acre on a lot more
frivolous things that don’t really add up to a lot, frankly. When you really
pencil it out, it’s really not very expensive for what you get out of it for the
value of piece of mind and knowing what’s going on out in your field on a very
quick and personal level it helps out quite a bit.”
Gaff concurred with the peace of mind a UAV delivers, saying
it’s more beneficial to know what’s happening in the field now rather than wait
until the combine rolls.
Randy Aberle of Gibson City, who also uses UAVs, joined the
panel discussion and gave an example where it paid off for a friend whose corn
was damaged by hail last fall.
The preliminary estimate was hail damage was limited to five
to seven acres.
“Flying over it they found 20 some acres of damage. That
right there paid for the ship,” Aberle said.
The panelists stressed the importance of safety when using
“You can do a lot of damage really fast whether it’s to
property, yourself or someone else. Be aware of your surroundings and what your
capabilities are,” Aberle said.
Due to the growing interest, the U.S. Congress directed the
Federal Aviation Agency to write regulations on how UAV technology can be used
for commercial purposes and specify restrictions for their use. The guidelines
are to be completed by the end of the year.
Guidelines currently in place include that UAVs cannot be
used for commercial purposes or rented to other farmers for a fee, they can only
be used on the owner’s property and fly under 400 feet, be a considerable
distance from people and buildings, be flown no closer than five miles from an
airport and also be within the operator’s eyesight.
“The FAA has been dragging their feet (establishing
regulations), but we have to be very cautious that we don’t do something to set
them off on the wrong foot,” Hughes said.
“You have to use common sense and be respectful of people
and property and when people tell you to quit flying, then quit flying. It’s
just like spraying. We try to be respectful to our neighbors.”