Flying drone demo highlights possibilities for farmers

Matt Gardner
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In recent years, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- commonly referred to as drones -- have become an increasingly prominent tool in the arsenal of military and police forces.

While the use of drones in warfare and surveillance may be their most conspicuous application, the technology also has its more benign side -- a fact of which area farmers are increasingly aware.

The use of drones for agriculture was a major attraction at Farm World on Thursday as the retailer hosted its annual Fall Fiesta. Among the 27 seminars for farmers, those in attendance had the opportunity to witness a flying drone demonstration and photos documenting a wide range of crop information.

“It’s the new buzz right now in agricultural industry, so everybody’s talking about it,” Farm World corporate parts manager Blair Fleischhacker said after demonstrating how to fly a drone.

“We've had a very good reception of it,” he added. “We’re excited about it, the farmers are excited about it and it’s in its infant stages, so a lot of guys are a little hesitant right now to jump on it.

“But I think next year we’re going to see a lot of interest in it and a lot of guys buying them. They’re really big in the States right now and they’re just starting to come into Canada.”

In its pioneering efforts to introduce drones to the Western Canada market, Farm World has partnered with an Indiana-based company, Precision Drone, that manufactures drones for agricultural use.

The founders of Precision Drone were farmers who wanted to scout their fields from the air but -- dissatisfied with the agricultural UAVs on the market -- instead began to manufacture their own.

“That’s why we teamed up with them … they’re farmers first and they know what farmers want,” Fleischhacker said.

Joining forces with Precision Drone in March, Farm World began to receive its first drones approximately two months ago and has since been training staff members, performing demonstrations for customers and figuring out the market for drones in the area.

“The more you fly them, the easier it becomes,” Fleischhacker said. “They’re really very easy to fly because it’s all controlled by GPS, so you plug in the coordinates in the computer and it goes and kind of flies itself.

“As far as flying it manual, it’s got a gyro in it so it always stays level, and it keeps its GPS position, so it sits there and hovers and you don’t have to worry about it.”

Local interest in drones has been strong thus far, given the myriad uses of a technology that allows farmers to obtain a real-time aerial map of their fields.

“It’s amazing what you can see from the air that you can’t see from the ground,” Fleischhacker said, noting that the drone he was flying had an infrared camera on it to measure photosynthesis in the plants.

“From there you can actually see the spots that are stressing,” he said. “It could be because of insect damage, disease or lack of fertilizer. So you can really tell in real time if there are problems with your fields.

It’s the new buzz right now in agricultural industry ... everybody’s talking about it. Blair Fleischhacker

“Typically what’s happened is you get to harvest and you see these spots at harvest time and you figure, ‘What could I have done different?’ Well, now you can have that same information before harvest and actually make some proactive decisions instead of waiting until it’s too late.”

Besides scouting for weed pressure, fertilizer deficiencies, or signs of insects and disease, farmers can also use drones to manage water, check on livestock herds and create Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) maps.

An example of resultant cost-saving would be allowing farmers to spray only one problem area, rather than the entire field.

The rapid development of UAV technology heralds expanded applications in the future, with Farm World CEO Tex Prete pointing to the possibility of topographical maps that would assist farmers with land leveling or ditching.

“It’s not that far or not that inconceivable to think that someday in the future … a lot of the crop spraying might be done with a drone rather than spraying with a ground unit at certain times of the year,” Prete said.

“The technology’s there, the capability of doing it, so it’s just a matter of what’s the next step.”

One potential obstacle at the moment is price, with the drone operated by Fleischhacker on Thursday costing $20,000.

The price of that kit includes a laptop and software worth $6,000 as well as six batteries, a live-feed monitor, controllers, regular and infrared cameras and a protective case.

Both Prete and Fleischhacker, however, noted that many farmers pay companies $1 or $2 per acre over the season to scout their fields on the ground -- fees that can add up quickly.

“When you consider the decisions that you make with the information that you’ve got (from the drone) … it pays for itself pretty quick,” Fleischhacker said.

“I think the bigger factor is that when you’re out there with the drone and the data that it’s collecting, it’s probably better quality data than what you can get just walking out in the field, because you’re actually looking at the whole field rather than just the area that you might be walking into,” Prete said.

“So you take out a lot of assumptions because you can actually physically see where the problems are in the field -- and obviously you can also see where the opportunities might be.”

At the moment, Farm World is one of the only agricultural equipment dealers in Canada selling drones.

With previous months largely dedicated to education, the retailer is planning to begin selling UAVs to farmers and agronomists in the next few months to get ready for next season.

Fleishhacker noted, “We’ve got a lot of interest from the Prince Albert-area farmers for sure.”

Organizations: Prince Albert

Geographic location: Western Canada

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