Five things everyone should know about . . . Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (aka “Drones”) in Agriculture

1 Agriculture is poised to become the biggest market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Up to 80 percent of the commercial market for UAVs will eventually be for agricultural uses, predicts the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Industry analysts expect more than 100,000 jobs to be created and nearly half a billion dollars in tax revenue to be generated collectively by 2025, much of it from agriculture.

2 UAVs have great potential use in monitoring crop health. During the growing season, producers spend time and resources scouting crops to identify issues that might impact growth or yield. Such monitoring is done mostly through manned planes, satellites—or, very often, a good old-fashioned walk through the field. But data collected through these methods can take a long time to process, making it hard for farmers to address problems in a timely, cost-effective manner. UAVs can allow producers to cover and analyze a greater area in more detail and in less time.

3 Ag UAVs can be loaded with game-changing technology. UAVs may be equipped with infrared cameras, vegetative indices sensors and other technology, collecting all manner of relevant data (presence of insects or disease, amount of water or dryness, location of livestock). Farmers also can use UAVs to tailor their use of such inputs as pesticides or fertilizer based on how much is needed at a specific point in a field, a process known as variable rate application. This practice can save the grower money while maintaining yield and also reducing the amount of potential runoff into nearby streams or lakes.

4 But simpler and less expensive models can be very helpful as well. Utilizing a UAV with a visible light camera (what we use for normal pictures and/or video) can give producers a bird’s- eye view of what is happening in their fields. Anomalies such as color variations in the crop canopy, winter kill areas and animal damage can be seen from the air. Once identified, these damaged areas can be verified on the ground more easily.

5 Wisconsin UAV interest is high. Most grower and commodity group presentations I have given with UW–Extension in the past year have been about UAVs and their uses. From the perspective of crop management and spatial variation management, our ability to collect data has been somewhat limited to the beginning of the growing season (spring soil sampling, for example) and the end of the growing season (yield monitoring). Any further data collection would require walking the field or extra passes over the field with equipment. UAVs have the potential to allow us to collect data about the health of the crop over the entire growing season.

Brian Luck is a CALS assistant professor of Biological Systems Engineering and a Machinery Systems/Precision Agriculture educator with UW–Extension. His UAV research focuses on applied uses of current UAV technology for production agriculture.