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Buying a drone? Know your needs

Jeff Caldwell 02/13/2014 @ 12:52pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Drones, or unmanned aerial systems, are hot in agriculture right now. And, this rapidly growing market is offering farmers a ton of choices. Knowing which one to buy can be tough, making reaching a clear idea of the tech tool's purpose and role on your farm of utmost importance before you buy, says one industry leader.

Aaron Sheller operates Precision Drone alongside his family's farm in central Indiana. He got into the drone game when he saw the technology as critical to augmenting his efficiency and profitability in lieu of simply growing his acreage base.

"We know it's hard to grow your business and do an efficient job managing those acres," Sheller says. "From our standpoint as growers, we want to be able to manage our acres on an acre-by-acre basis rather than a field-by-field basis."

Sheller uses a 6-blade multi-prop helicopter-style drone -- the same ones his company offers to farmers and crop consultants -- to create quick crop health maps and make nutrient management decisions from the field's edge in a much shorter timeframe than with traditional field scouting.

"We get a picture of crop health conditions and don't just diagnose problems. We find solutions. We can take that data and turn it into a management decision at the side of the field," he says. "Essentially, our scouting day consists in pulling to the side of the field, pulling out the kit, opening up the laptop, checking the scout routes already programmed and flying it. Once we get that field flown, bring it in, download the image to the laptop, take the composite picture that's red-green contrast for crop health, then when we see trouble spots, rescout those spots with the camera and you can see what the camera sees from the road.

"At that point, we can tell you the problem."

The next step in the process, Sheller says, will be integrating drone-derived crop data into existing field management software to create products like variable-rate fertilizer maps quickly, then acting on the information those types of maps can generate.

"It's proactive rather than reactive farming," Sheller says.

The drone market's growing rapidly, and that growth has definite pros and cons. Right now, there's a wide range of options and prices. As such, it's important to nail down how exactly you want to use the new tech tool on your farm, who will help you keep it in operation and what you want to pay for it.

"You've got a lot of new entries into the market, so you're going to have a lot of different choices and products. There's a lot of excitement about that," Sheller says. "The other side of it is there are a lot of 'toys' out there, and the serviceability is an issue. You could have a problem and who's going to help you manage that problem? I think you need to analyze the situation you're in and how you want to utilize that product. And, you need a close adviser to you, somebody you're working with already to help you utilize the technology, so as you have questions, you have somebody to help you answer those questions."

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