From military strikes to farming, drones segueing into rural America

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have been used overseas for U.S. military strikes, but they could soon be seen flying over fields in rural America.

PrecisionHawk, a company that makes UAVs for civilian purposes, is touring the country showcasing its technology. One such stop was at Ohio State’s Farm Science Review in mid-September.

The three-foot, three-pound drone flew over the 1,200 acre Molly Caren Agricultural Center in London, Ohio, three times in live demonstrations during FSR.

FSR has been an expo for cutting-edge farm equipment for 50 years, and PrecisionHawk CEO Ernest Earon said UAVs could become another tool for farmers to survey their land.

“I want them to use the plane the way they would use a hammer,” he said in a quote provided to The Lantern by Lia Reich, a spokeswoman for PrecisionHawk, in a Skype message. “In order to get really good data into work flows for farmers, into their systems, I’d love to see a full integration where we are able to completely close the loop on farm inputs and precision agriculture.”

Before the drone launches, a flight plan is programmed by either plugging in the latitude and longitude coordinates of the field or by uploading a shape file. The UAV then takes off, flies over the field and lands from where it took off, PrecisionHawk field technician Brandon Eickhoff said.

Eickhoff said each platform will be tailored to the specific consumer, including what sensors are on board. There are five available sensors that can be purchased, including visual, thermal, multispectral, hyperspectral and sensors that piece together a 3D picture of the surveyed land, according to the PrecisionHawk website.

Peter Thomison, an OSU professor of horticulture and crop science, said this data could prove invaluable information to farmers.

“We could get a pretty good reading on growth and development, weed control, frost and wind damage and scouting,” he said.

The drone has seven to eight sensors on board that monitor conditions and adjust accordingly, Eickhoff said. If the weather becomes too inclement to fly or the battery becomes too low to continue its mission, it returns on its own. There is a remote control function to adjust if necessary, which was used at the FSR demonstrations for safety purposes to ensure control of the drone.

Eickhoff said the user interaction aspect would essentially be to preprogram the flight, toss the drone and wait. Once the flight is over, the data can be uploaded to PrecisionHawk via a microSD card, the Internet, a USB connection or Bluetooth. Once the data is uploaded, Precision Hawk puts together a picture of the field and provides data requested by the consumer.

The drone, as it stands now, would cost about $25,000, Eickhoff said, however, that is a preliminary number and the price should be significantly less when the drone comes to market.

“By this time next year, it will be well-rounded. The kinks and bugs will be worked out and anyone can own it,” he said. He added that some of the software will be released within the next month or two and the whole system should be available for farming season next year.

Reich said the company is not yet releasing what the final cost would be, partially for “competitive reasons.”

“It’s going to be a platform that is affordable, or as affordable as other pieces of field equipment a farmer would normally use in their day-to-day,” Reich said.

Thomison said he sees the value in drones for agricultural use but is unsure about the costs involved.

“It’s in its infancy right now,” he said.

He said it will be much more likely to see seed companies, fertilizer companies, consulting firms and co-ops use the technology for their clients, as opposed to the average farmer.

OSU assistant extension professor Barry Ward agreed.

“My guess is where it will begin will be more on a consulter basis,” he said.

Some issues Thomison and Ward cited were the turnaround time and the fact that Ohio’s aging farmer population might not have the knowhow to operate UAV technology.

The average age of the farmer is 57, according to an OSU Extension article.

“It depends on the diversity of personnel on the farm,” Ward said.

According to Ward, the typical Ohio farm size “varies widely” but commercial operations in Ohio tend to be 1,200 to 2,500 acres.

“As you go farther west in the corn belt, you might see a greater need for it,” Thomison said.

However, Eickhoff is confident the system is user-friendly enough to where those issues won’t be a problem.

“It’s simple enough,” he said. “The older generation is more tech-savvy and we’re making the platform more user-friendly. Plan the field, press launch and go.”

Drones could be used not only for agricultural purposes, but also for mining, forestry, livestock, geology, surveying, 3D topography, research and education, according to the Precision Hawk website.

“Needless to say, this is a hot button issue getting a lot of attention,” Thomison said.

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