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Is a drone in your farm's future?

The word is out. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have a bright future in agriculture. Although the concept is still in the infancy stage for the farming sector, it hasn’t stopped countless contenders outside of ag from attempting to capitalize on interest among farmers and agribusinesses.

“It is really a time for a buyer to beware!” says Rory Paul, Volt Aerial Robotics. “We have seen a number of companies enter the market with essentially high-priced, hobby-grade products trying to exploit the potential in the ag sector. Some of the products are good, but there are others that are really not suited for agricultural use. You need to do your homework and not be beguiled by the shiny toys.”

A new flight path

Raised on a farm near Noblesville, Indiana, a career in ag wasn’t originally on Aaron Sheller’s radar. When his father unexpectedly passed away, the then Purdue University student was faced with a decision.

“My plan was to be a lawyer or a certified public accountant – not a farmer,” recalls Sheller.

A conversation with a local farmer shortly after his father’s death made him rethink his path. “My dad’s best friend and I were standing down at the grain bin, and he said, ‘Aaron, you’re never going to get rich being a farmer. You’re going to get by.

But you do get to feed the world.’ It was better than any pep talk I had ever had in my life,” recalls Sheller.

That vision of feeding the world also ignited a business that began as an exploration of the capabilities of drone technology.

“Matt Minnes, an agronomic adviser, and I were honestly just developing a drone to utilize ourselves,” Sheller says. “It was amazing what we were able to capture. We saw nitrogen deficiency before the naked eye could see it. We were able to see corn borer feeding in the field without actually going into the field.”

The drone gave Sheller a whole new perspective on his farming practices.

“We’re seeing problems surface we didn’t even know we had,” he says. “It’s changed the way I farm. My number one priority is farming, but if a drone has changed the way I farm, we’re going to take it to market.

“We need to use drone technology not only for our own profitability and understanding about what our crops are doing but also so we can raise more food to feed a growing population,” he says.

A tool, not a toy

Precision Drone, which Sheller founded with Minnes, officially took flight in the summer of 2013.

As a farmer, Sheller believes that the UAV has to be built in such a way that a fellowfarmercanappreciateand can utilize the technology.

“Everybody in the drone world who isn’t a farmer, acts like this is no big deal to operate,” he says. “We’ve crashed it; we’ve broken it; we’ve fixed it. It’s all part of understanding what these devices are capable of.”

To that end, the pair wanted to develop a product that not only was scout-ready right out of the package, but also had a solid support system to assist with questions as well as replacement parts. What that means is their helicopter-style drones, the PaceSetter and Scout, are fully assembled upon arrival and are available through a dealer network.

“I don’t want to scare people, but it can crash,” Sheller says. “It’s not expensive to fix if you have the right service department and dealer network.”

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To date, Indiana dealerships Reynolds Farm Equipment and Drago Indiana have signed on as well as Hutson, Inc. in Kentucky. “We’re actively looking to grow our dealer network,” says Sheller.

The models incorporate the duo’s own blend of technology already available on the market, including Precision Vision.

“The naked eye can’t see true differences in crop health. With Precision Vision, which is a composite video overlay system that shows crop health, you can see plant-to-plant differences in photosynthesis efficiency. It allows you to make same-day decisions about the health of your crops,” he explains.

The PaceSetter ($17,500) comes complete with a controller, Precision Vision, auto pilot, command center, live feed and monitor, dual battery charger, six batteries, two 16 GB micro SD memory cards, and a protective case.

“The Scout, which sells for $7,500, includes everything in the PaceSetter kit except for auto pilot and crop health imaging. It just has live feed,” notes Sheller. “Both models can cover about 160 acres in 10 minutes.”

Buying tips

Because this is uncharted territory for many farmers, both Paul and Sheller recommend determining your end goal before making an investment.

“If you are interested in using a UAV, you need to understand your application and work backwards from that to see if an unmanned system can solve your problem,” says Paul.

Sheller adds, “Be certain the drone can do what you want it to do. Once you figure that out, look to a trusted source, like your machinery dealer or technology adviser, for guidance. When you decide to purchase, look to a reputable dealer who can provide service – whether it be analyzing data or providing support.

“We’re just at the beginning of this. It’s like any other technology – it’s going to change rapidly,” Sheller says.

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