Adding Another Tool

Drones are becoming more common in agriculture

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), such as drones, are becoming more and more common in the world of agriculture.

Over the years, the rules and regulations have become more clear and defined – meaning the potential uses for drones in agriculture continues to grow. The University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources has found a handful of ways to utilize the new technology, whether it be in the classroom, in the field or in the forest.

“This is definitely a topic of interest,” said Kent Shannon, MU Extension specialist. “Drones are just another tool that farmers, ranchers and landowners can add to their tool belt. It’s not the be-all, end-all for data collection, but there is definitely a lot of potential to do some really cool things.”

Shannon started researching how drones could play a role in agriculture in 2013. Shannon routinely presents at numerous CAFNR Agricultural Research Center field days and is always looking for new and timely topics. He was brainstorming with past Greenley Research Center superintendent Randall Smoot four years ago about possible presentation topics and Smoot suggested drones. Shannon was hooked.

Kent Shannon has been researching uses for drones since 2013.Kent Shannon has been researching uses for drones since 2013.

“Drones in agriculture had just kind of hit the news at that time,” Shannon said. “Randall really got me started on this path, and I’ve learned a lot over the course of four years.”

Shannon travels throughout the state to present and answer questions about drones. He also serves as a guest lecturer in the Precision Agriculture Science and Technology (ASM 4360) class. Students learn about the importance of precision agriculture in ASM 4360, from economical and environmental perspectives. Drones can play a role in that world.

“We’ve used drones in a variety ways so far, including in crop scouting, nitrogen application and in forage settings,” Shannon said. “We’re also looking at how drones can be used in cattle monitoring. There are several other ways to utilize them, too.”

It was Shannon’s first field day presentation that piqued the interest of Hundley-Whaley Research Center superintendent Bruce Burdick. Burdick works with local producers constantly, and he is always looking for new ideas and technology to aid those producers in their efforts. He thought drones could be a helpful tool.

Burdick has been flying drones for four years now. He’s been using drones for a variety of projects at Hundley-Whaley, including flying over fields to get a different perspective of the crops.

“The technology is really advancing rapidly,” Burdick said. “There is a lot of opportunities to use drones for research purposes, as well as potential to help farmers, ranchers and landowners in everyday tasks.”

Burdick uses his drone to get a bird’s-eye view of the nitrogen that Hundley-Whaley applies to corn. The drone allows Burdick to see if there is a uniform application of nitrogen and if there are wet spots throughout the field. A farmer can’t see those type problems looking straight at the crops – it requires a view from above.

Bruce Burdick has been flying drones for four years. He uses a drone at the Hundley-Whaley Research Center to fly over fields.Bruce Burdick has been flying drones for four years. He uses a drone at the Hundley-Whaley Research Center to fly over fields.

Dusty Walter has a different vision of drone use. Walter is the director of natural resources management in the office of research and extension, as well as the superintendent of the Wurdack Research Center. Walter is looking at how drones can be used in a forest setting.

“It’s really tough to see what’s going on at the top of trees,” Walter said. “It’s extremely difficult to get a close-up picture of that area.

“Perspective is everything. If we can find problems earlier, we can treat them earlier. Drones allow us to bring a more targeted approach to agriculture.”

Walking through a forest can give a landowner a look at how healthy the forest is – but a drone can really show how crowded the top of the trees are. Trees need room to grow and having a unique view can help with that process.

“Our Agricultural Research Centers put a focus on making good management decisions,” Walter said. “We think that utilizing new technology, such as drones, can help us make some of those decisions, which will have not only economic impacts, but environmental impacts, too.”

Shannon, Burdick and Walter all have their remote pilot license to legally operate drones. When drones first burst onto the scene in the agricultural world, there were numerous gray areas. While there were ways for drones to be flown in the agricultural sense, there were concerns about flying over people as well as concerns about flying in the flight path of airplanes. Landowners were also more tied to flying drones on their property.

Dusty Walter is hoping that drones can be used to look at the health of forests.Dusty Walter is hoping that drones can be used to look at the health of forests.

Shannon even ran into problems while teaching about drones. It was difficult to fly in certain areas because of the rules and restrictions.

“Many drone owners were saying they were flying as a hobby,” Shannon said. “The FAA made clarifications, though. When owners were flying over crops, the FAA viewed it as commercial use, not hobby use. There were just a lot unanswered questions and unknown situations popping up.

“Now, the rules are pretty straightforward. You have to have a remote pilot license and register your drone for business purposes.”

The test is made up of 60 questions with a focus on several different aspects. Drone operators must answer questions on the issue of air space, weather conditions and the dynamics of drones.

Walter and Burdick are currently talking with several individuals about incorporating drones into research projects.

“Drones are really just tools to help research projects along,” Burdick said. “We’re looking at how we can incorporate this tool into ongoing projects.”