LONDON — Thanks to new advances in technology, figuring out a game plan for running efficient farms has never been easier. On March 10, an Ohio State professor explained how Madison and Union county farmers can use that technology, too.
John Fulton, an associate professor at Ohio State University spoke about “precision agriculture” during a farmer’s breakfast, sponsored by Madison County OSU Extension, at the Red Brick Tavern. Precision agriculture involves using drones and thermal cameras to help farmers better manage their fields.
Fulton said the cost of using precision agricultural tools has become cheaper over the years, making it more accessible to more farmers.
Since the turn of the century, unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAV’s or drones, have developed rapidly. These high-tech aircrafts have recently expanded into the civilian market and quickly found use on the farm.
Drones can be flown manually from the ground using a remote control, but can also be programmed to fly themselves. They come in two styles, a plane-like design or quad-rotors which resemble helicopters.
Fulton recommended the helicopter style for newbies as they’re easier to control and program.
Farmers can use these robotic planes and helicopters for a variety of things, such as observation and even to spread fertilizer. He noted that the fertilizing drones are still prohibitively expensive for many farmers.
Fulton said the drone industry as whole is starting to consolidate.
“We’re getting down to, at least in agriculture, where’s there’s only going to be a handful of people providing drones today,” he said. “We’ve seen a few companies go under, but we’re seeing some thrive.”
As the technology gets more accessible, Fulton said it was becoming more and more practical to use for observation. This can help farmers get a better idea of how their fields look and more.
Due to changes in weather, among other factors, the images are only useful for about a day and-a-half, but it can help farmers notice issues they might not have caught.
“You can get more out of an aerial view, than from looking off of the side of the road,” said Fulton.
How practical a drone becomes is largely based on what camera it’s using.
Cameras and satellites
Much like the difference between your old smartphone camera from 2010 to your new one today, modern cameras for precision agriculture have become more compact and lighter, while still taking crystal clear pictures. This helps with the practicality of drones even more.
“The technology is improving rapidly,” he said. “From just five years ago, we now have drones that are much more stable when flying. The cameras also can self-correct from things like wind interference, so the images come out clearer.”
There’s more than just your traditional camera however. There’s a plethora of them that can detect heat, water and plant density. These factors can help farmers locate stress in crops, preventing losses.
Buying images from a company with satellites are also an option, but Fulton noted the pictures just aren’t as clear as with a drone.
With all of the options and advances in technology, the process of getting images is cheaper than ever.
“I can purchase imagery today that’s $6 an acre,” he said. “If we went back 10 years ago that would have been at least double the price, maybe more.”
Fulton added he’d like to see picture taking services to get even cheaper in the future so it becomes standard.
Putting it to use
So what is the practicality of all of these gadgets? Fulton says it depends on what you’re looking to do.
“You can use these tools for a variety of things,” he said. “So when you ask ‘when should I use them,’ it’s purely circumstantial.”
Fulton highlighted how the observation helped him pinpoint when to use fertilizers and optimum time for observation.
Or just simply taking pictures from an overhead view is useful as well. It helps a farmer notice problems sooner.
“If I see [stress] in a soybean field, I’m probably more apt to check that out,” said Fulton.
While they are certainly useful, Fulton said people interested in this technology should be aware there are also some rules and regulations to follow.
Drone pilots need to be certified with the Federal Aviation Agency by taking a $150 test.
Fulton said the test would be easier for people who have flown a manned airplane, but the information was easily accessible online and could be quickly studied and learned.
Due to Ohio law, one person needs to spot the drone while it flies while the other drives it or watches the images coming from the camera.
Furthermore, only one drone can be flown at a time, limiting the image gathering operations.
Despite these hurdles, he noted the rapid advances are only going to make things easier in the long run.
“In just the last 18 months, we’ve seen this technology exponentially improve,” he said. “Things are going to get more compact and more powerful as time goes on.”
Maximilian Kwiatkowski can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617 or on Twitter @MSFKwiat.