Unmanned aerial vehicles are how a new generation of pioneers is forging new paths in agricultural production. Drones are now limited by the Federal Aviation Administration to private use in agriculture, but farmers, such as Tim Regnier of Mazon, Ill., are honing their flight skills for the day when commercial use in agriculture is approved by the FAA.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are how a new generation of pioneers is forging new paths in agricultural production. Drones are now limited by the Federal Aviation Administration to private use in agriculture, but farmers, such as Tim Regnier of Mazon, Ill., are honing their flight skills for the day when commercial use in agriculture is approved by the FAA.
DWIGHT, Ill. — Brian Leone’s father and grandfather watched agriculture move from the 19th century to the 20th century. They saw technology move from tractors that had the power of a few horses to machines that communicate with satellites.

That technology changed how far and how fast farmers could move across their fields and how much corn, soybeans and wheat they could grow.

Now, their son and grandson has his eyes on the skies to see the next revolution in agriculture.

“Our mission is to make more bushels per acre, to go from a 200- to 250-per-bushel an acre average. This kind of technology is going to make that happen,” said Leone, who farms near Peru and is the fourth-generation of Leones in the farming and agriculture business.

Leone knows that his generation and following generations will be pioneers of new and very different technology in agriculture.

“Our ancestors watched agriculture go from one-row planters to two-row planters to now 36-row planters. We’re not going to watch that happen. That part of the growth in ag is mainly done,” he said.

The next wave of technology includes a small airborne vehicle, compact enough to fit in a suitcase and run on battery power, but powerful enough to change how farmers view — and care for — their farms and fields.

The use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles in agriculture has caught on around the world and is gaining widespread interest in the U.S. and the Midwest.

FAA Limitations

The use of drones for commercial agricultural use still is restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration. But farmers and agribusinesses are preparing for the day when the use of drones in U.S. agriculture goes mainstream.

“We’re going to see and review our farms in ways we never have before. You’re going to see it on a whole different level,” said Chad Colby, integrated solutions manager for Cross Implement Co., based in Minier.

If agricultural drone technology is a religion, then Colby surely is one of its primary disciples. He has taught and lectured about the use of agriculture drones from farms in Illinois to conferences in Texas.

Some 30 farmers and agribusinessmen gathered at Boucher Farms, near Dwight, to learn about the do’s and don’ts of agriculture drones and their use on farms.

The sessions included both practical information, technology information and tips and an information exchange among drone owners, as well as an outdoor flying session where drone owners maneuvered their craft around Matt Boucher’s house, grain bins and buildings.

“We talked about the fundamentals of how to use them, how to use them safely, how to operate them safely with the FAA, that means fly under 400 feet, always with visual flight rules,” Colby said.

Better View

Leone already has had a better view than most from the sprayer he operates. He can attest to the fact that the view of a field from the air can provide a farmer more information on the condition of his fields and disease and insect pressure.

“All of us could go walk a soybean field that has spider mite pressure and say, ‘I didn’t see any.’ You can go out in a sprayer that’s 10 feet in the air and there are spider mites all over that field and you can see them all over the place,” he said.

Colby is quick to emphasize that farmers, including those who also are involved in agribusiness, such as fertilizer or seed dealers or other side ventures, are following the rules when it comes to how they are using their drones.

“It’s important to say that they are not doing this for hire. They bought these so they can look at their own fields on their own time. You can’t exchange any money for aerial imagery right now — that is illegal per the FAA,” he said.

Cameras attached to a drone can help a farmer monitor the condition of his fields throughout the growing season. The small flying machines won’t replace scouting a field on foot, but they can help farmers know where to look for problems.

Rob Colby, Chad Colby’s cousin, recently bought a drone. He farms near Tiskilwa.

“If you have one of these, if you have a wind event come through or anything weather-related, you can drive out to the field, you’re up in the air and in 10 minutes, you’ve got your pictures and you can see what’s happening,” Rob Colby said.

“It helps you look for problem areas and then pinpoint a spot that you need to go check, rather than having to walk a 160-acre field with corn that’s eight feet tall and you don’t know where you’re going or what you’re trying to find,” Leone said.

Starter System

The basic entry-level drone package, which includes the quad copter, a drone with four rotating blades, as well as extra batteries and case, can cost around $3,000 to $4,000. The cost of a system can increase depending on what the operator wants to add.

Other fixed-wing UAV systems, such as the Ag Eagle fixed-wing UAV that can take and then stitch together infrared images of fields, are more costly. Technology available on the Ag Eagle can produce Normalized Difference Vegetation Index images, a type of image that shows the health of vegetation in an area.

“A lot of the progressive growers would like to have NDVI. They pay for it — it’s $4 to $8 an acre. They fly it on June 10, for example. If it’s a cloudy day, they might not get the image. Then it takes sometimes two weeks to get the data. If it takes two weeks, it’s too late to make a decision about that field, to go and adjust a nitrogen sidedress program or any of those things, you don’t have time then,” Chad Colby said. “Where this benefits is a grower can go do this himself.”

There are hurdles for the widespread use of UAVs in U.S. agriculture. Private UAVs can only fly to 400 feet and are restricted from commercial airspace and airspace in and around urban areas.

“Are there people who are going to abuse this? You bet. Is this technology potentially extremely dangerous? Without question. So you have to be trained properly and you have to know what you’re doing and there’s a responsibility that comes with it,” Colby said.

Interest Increasing

Over the past six to eight months, interest from farmers in drones has increased, and many acquired drones over the winter.

“I flew all of last year, and I didn’t know anyone else who was flying. No one. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many people will be flying this year. It’s really taken off over the winter,” Colby said.

Randy Aberle farms near Gibson City and attended the clinic. He voiced the concern that many farmers — and rural residents — have about the new eyes in the skies.

“My big concern is privacy, privacy at home and privacy on the farm. I don’t need neighbors flying over looking at my fields, but at the same time, I live on the edge of town. If I was flying the field there, it would come over the top of my house. With the NDVI images, I’m not so concerned, but flying with a GoPro (small camera that can be attached to UAVs) shooting color images, now there’s more of a concern because you can actually see what’s going on,” he said.

However, battery life — each battery allows less than an hour of flight time, and that flight time and distance can further be limited by the weight of additional gadgets to the UAV — and the cost of the systems may answer the privacy concerns.

“You’re not going to go spend $4,000 or $10,000 so you can just spy on your neighbors. You’re doing it for your own farm,” Leone said.

Colby has three good reasons to want safe airspace — wife Karen, daughter Bristol and newborn daughter Mara.

“There’s nothing I want more and believe that the FAA wants more than to have safe airspace,” he said.

He believes that agricultural drone use and safe U.S. airspace can coexist.

“When the FAA allows it to go commercial, it’s going to be just like an airplane. There will be requirements for the pilots. There will be requirements for the ships. We don’t know what those are right now,” he said.

Colby does know that farmers, with ever-limited time, are showing more interest in using drones on their farms.

“All of these farmers are on the same page. They’re excited to be able to go out and really quickly take a look at what they’ve got, is there a problem, go out and groundtruth it and move on from there,” he said. “It’s having that instant ability to do that quickly, that’s what works for them.”

He said he expects the FAA to be looking at the use of drones in a commercial application in agriculture as the interest from the private farm sector grows.

“We know that there are a lot of other applications, but when you look at all the different entities, agriculture is the big winner and the FAA knows this. At the end of the day, we all love this technology because we can make better decisions because of it,” he said.

Whether it’s monitoring drainage issues, checking for weather-related damage or scouting for disease and insect pressures or making harvest plans, Colby believes — and teaches others — that the possibilities for the use of drones in U.S. agriculture are endless and exciting.

“I think the sky’s the limit,” he said.