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SF Blog: Can a UAV really be a game-changer for agriculture?

Corn doesn’t know it’s only worth $3, and you shouldn’t treat it that way. That is the insight an Iowa farmer shared with me recently about adopting precision ag technology. When commodity prices are low, it’s natural to pull back, especially on technology. Yet, this farmer takes the opposite position. He believes the best time to invest in precision ag technology is when profit margins are tight because every penny counts. 

Take unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as an example. When AUVSI released its Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration report back in 2013, it was as if a floodgate opened. It detailed the industries most likely to benefit from adopting UAVs – with agriculture being named as one of the biggest benefactors. With dollar signs in their sights, myriad companies began pouring into the ag sector believing they suddenly knew exactly what the industry needed to help producers feed the world; namely, a UAV. 

Many responded by purchasing a device. There's no doubt flying a UAV over a field to gain a completely different perspective is cool. But excitement soon turned to frustration because there were a number of roadblocks along the path to adoption, including where to get parts, how to interpret the images, and the legalities of flying over a farm.

I also saw a number of companies and individuals claiming that these devices were easy to fly and that little to no training was needed. I witnessed this first-hand as I watched a young man claiming to know all about UAVs demonstrate a homemade device, equipped with popsicle sticks for landing gear, to a group of insurance agents. As his device took flight, it quickly crashed because he did not know how to properly control it.

A few weeks later, I watched as a farmer and newly signed UAV dealer eagerly demonstrated a fixed-wing device for me. It was a blustery day and I questioned whether it was too windy to fly. He quickly assured me wind was not an issue. As the device took flight over a line of grain bins, it suddenly dipped out of sight. Odd, the farmer thought. Walking toward the area where the UAV went down, he soon found it – in pieces. As the farmer inspected the damage, I noticed blood trickling to the ground. He had inadvertently sliced his hand on the propeller as he checked out the damage. The demonstration was clearly over.

The reality is, these devices aren’t easy to fly and require a certain level of skill and training, especially if you are to fly them safely. They also require an infrastructure that can accommodate the necessary maintenance these devices will undoubtedly need, as well as a seamless process to make recommendations users can easily apply to their fields.

Safety aside, the real question is, can a UAV really be a game-changer for your operation?

It’s a question industry experts will address in a free webinar on Thursday, October 27. As the moderator, I will be talking to Noah Freeman of AgReliant and Ray Asebedo of Kansas State University on the value of drone technology, effective platforms, and the future of aerial imaging on the farm.

Don’t miss your opportunity to learn what it will take to integrate a precision ag technology like a UAV into your management plan because, after all, your corn doesn't know it's only worth $3.

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