Buying Your First Farm Drone

Drones are in your future. They can give you relatively inexpensive bird’s-eye views of your fields for spotting problems early – and acting accordingly. 

When you’re ready to invest, Kent Shannon will be a good guy to know. The University of Missouri agricultural engineer is a drone expert. As an Extension specialist, he has nothing for sale, just unbiased tips on the technology.

Pick your style 

There are two choices in drones: fixed-wing and quadcopter style.

A fixed-wing drone looks like a small model airplane with a camera attached. These drones fly fast and efficiently, typically getting 50 minutes of flight time on a single battery charge and perhaps covering 500 acres, says Shannon.

One disadvantage is that fixed-wing drones tend to cost more than quadcopters, starting at about $3,100 for the Scout Drone from Event 38 (event38.com). The fixed-wing eBeeSQ drone from Parrot (parrot.com) is specially made for agriculture and costs about $12,000.

Takeoffs and landings require a little more space and training for fixed-wing drones. “You need a smooth grassy runway. Gravel roads don’t work very well,” says Shannon. You can also do two-person takeoffs (one person at the controller; one person doing the throw launches).

Quadcopter drones, on the other hand, are small helicopters. They don’t fly as fast, and battery life tends to give about 30 minutes of flight before recharging. 

Most drone operators buy extra battery packs for field missions. “I recommend at least four,” says Shannon. “That fourth battery seems to get me over the hump in completing many missions.”

There are several manufacturers of copter drones. The biggest for agriculture is DJI (dji.com), a company that started in China but now has worldwide offices. The low-end DJI drone is called the Spark at about $600, says Shannon. One step up is the Mavic Pro at about $1,350. 

“Both have a basic camera but not many more accessories,” says Shannon. “It’s a place to start as you learn.” They weigh less than 2 pounds, making them harder to fly in wind.

A popular DJI drone for commercial applications is the Phantom 4 Pro, which sells online for about $2,300. It’s heavier (about 4 pounds) and can fly longer missions. 

Another step up is the DJI Inspire 2 at about $5,000. It can carry two cameras.

One new style of drone, says Shannon, is a hybrid that takes off copter-style, then its blades pivot forward to fly like a fixed-wing model. One that Shannon has seen is the FireFly6 Pro at about $6,700.

Autonomous drones are another step up. “You set up what you want it to do, then it flies the missions every day, all on its own from its base,” he says. The Scout from American Robotics (American-robotics.com) is made specifically for agriculture. 

In his research, Shannon has flown some fields with as many as six different drones and compared final images. “My takeaway is that you definitely don’t need the most expensive system to get some very useful information,” he says.

Camera advancements

Imaging technology for drones is also changing rapidly, says Kent Shannon, University of Missouri ag engineer. Drone cameras take multiple aerial images, then a computer program stitches them together to show one map with color patterns, pest damage, or nutrient deficiency symptoms. 

To create an aerial image of a 100-acre field, current technology might require an hour of flight time and 200 individual images, or about 80% overlap for final resolution. “What if we needed less overlap?” Shannon asks.

That’s exactly what sensor company SlantRange (slantrange.com) is working on. Its multi-imaging device would require only 20% image overlap, cutting flight time to just 15 minutes.

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