Not Just Toys: Adding Value with UAVs

There’s been plenty of buzz about the potential uses for unmanned aerial vehicles on farms over the last few years, but many producers are still waiting to see if there’s a business case for purchasing one. They want to see if UAVs can add enough value to justify spending not only the money, but also the time it takes to use them (and/or play with them). A UAV must serve as a tool for more than filming YouTube footage of farm equipment in action.

John Nowatzki, who leads the unmanned aerial systems research with North Dakota State University’s Ag Extension Service, says the case for owning a UAV can already be made.

“If you can get that eye in the sky, that in itself is a valuable opportunity,” he says in the video below, filmed at the NDSU Langdon Research Extension Center’s annual field day last week. (continued below)

Poll: yes or no — do you own a UAV?

As a basic function, the camera on a UAV can help a producer with field scouting, providing an overall assessment of crop damage or lodging in a field. Using a vegetative index, UAV imagery can be used to create variable rate prescriptions for side-dressing corn or top-dressing wheat to boost protein, explains Nowatzki. The aerial data can also be used to determine stand counts for row crops, which can help with in-season management decisions.

“If you’re going to spend a thousand to five thousand dollars on a small UAV with cameras, you can recover that quickly in terms of saving inputs or putting inputs where they’re most needed,” he says.

Nowatzki and his research team are evaluating many other uses for UAVs, including scouting for clubroot-infected patches in canola fields, finding herbicide-resistant weeds and identifying sick cattle before visible symptoms are noticed.

He says regulations have restricted the adoption of UAVs on U.S. farms, but as the Federal Aviation Administration is loosing its rules, flying machines could become common as soon as next year.

“I think we’ll see widespread use of UAVs in 2016,” says Nowatzki.

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