Navigate the drone learning curve
Sprayer drones had hit the agricultural market by 2018, but Taylor Moreland was having trouble finding a dealer who understood agriculture in the Midwest.
He wanted to solve a problem for the farmers he serves through his Pioneer seed dealership, Moreland Seed & Soil, in Centralia, Missouri. Many of his customers rely on crop dusters for aerial applications of fungicide, which often leads to yield-reducing delays during busy, but critical, weeks. He thought he would buy a sprayer drone and become a custom applicator to provide timelier service.
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However, he quickly realized there was a deeper void.
The United States had only a few sprayer drone dealerships at the time, and most were in Florida or California. No one he talked to was familiar with row crop farming nor were they able to provide support specific to farmers, so he decided to become a dealer himself.
His focus would be on providing “a superior level of service,” he says. Anything a farmer would need to navigate this new world of drone technology, Agri Spray Drones would provide.
Moreland and his team spent the next couple of years researching and testing sprayer drones from various manufacturers. They did custom applications and learned best practices for operation. They also worked with local farmers to better understand their questions.
By 2020, Agri Spray Drones was open for business.
What You Get
Agri Spray offers a line of drones made by DJI, including the Agras T30, which at 7.9-gallon capacity is the largest sprayer drone available in the United States.
Customers who buy a drone from Agri Spray receive resources for insurance options and in-field support. They can also add the Federal Aviation Administration regulations training, which includes support to get licensed to legally operate the drone and in-depth training in efficient operation of the drone.
Most people do add the extra support, Moreland says. The full package costs $20,000 to $35,000, depending on the model.
Dale Diederich and his father, Scott Diederich, who grow corn and soybeans in Old Monroe, Missouri, purchased a drone from Agri Spray in 2021. After initially seeing the technology demonstrated at a field day earlier that year, they contacted Moreland for more information. A couple of weeks later, an Agri Spray representative visited their farm and demonstrated how the drone would work in one of their soybean fields.
“It worked great,” Dale Diederich says, adding that they liked the drone’s ability to access tight places, such as around tree lines, where a ground rig can’t easily fit.
They primarily use the drone for spraying herbicides in the tighter areas and in small fields, but discovering the drone also could be used as a seeder was the deal clincher for their purchase.
In addition to farming, the Diederichs manage lakes for duck habitat. This involves planting millet in and around the lakes, which is a messy process. Typically, they seed millet using four-wheelers, making ruts and covering themselves in mud. Now, they’re able to stand on dry ground while the drone drops seed from above.
The Diederichs initially purchased the T16, but after using it a while realized they wanted the larger T20 model. They worked with Agri Spray to make the switch. The learning curve was steep, Diederich says.
The technology includes options that are helpful, but only if you understand them. For example, object avoidance stops the drone from flying into trees, telephone poles, and other objects. Another feature is mountain mode, which enables the drone to sense changes in elevation.
Diederich says he had to learn how to adjust these settings for his family’s farm.
“He answered questions all the time,” Diederich says of Moreland, remembering instances when he would call Moreland on a Sunday after running into issues. “Taylor would answer the phone right away or call me right back. We’d get it figured out and keep moving.”
A year later, Diederich is more confident in his use of the drone. He says Agri Spray Drones is still there if he gets into a bind, but nine times out of 10 he’s able to solve problems on his own.
|Is a Drone Worth the Cost?|
Before you consider buying a drone, ask yourself these questions:
Taylor Moreland of Agri Spray Drones says you can expect a drone to cost about $1 an acre to operate. You can cover about 20 to 30 acres per hour.
It’s important to know how much money a drone will cost you and save you (or buy you, in the case of better yields). Moreland can help you determine your ROI and evaluate whether a drone may be a good choice for you. Visit agrispraydrones.com for more information.
A Hidden Gem
Moreland says sprayer drones are not intended to be a replacement for tractors or for ground sprayer rigs, especially for herbicide, which is more susceptible to wind drift.
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They can deliver anything already applied by air, such as fungicide. They are also useful for spot spraying herbicide and fertilizer and in places where ground rigs are inefficient. The drones can map specific areas to spray, and they generate data on when, where, and how much they sprayed in specific areas. Overlaying this information with production data allows the operator to test various chemicals and determine the efficacy of each one.
Moreland calls the potential for drones to provide farmers with data a “hidden gem” of the technology that’s not used to its full potential yet. Another is its overseeding abilities.
Some farmers, like the Diederichs, are using drones to spread seed. However, Moreland envisions more farmers in the future using drones to overseed cover crops into standing crops. He says the ability to plant from the sky could make timing less of a barrier to increasing biodiversity and soil health with cover crop species that would do better if planted before, not after, harvest.
“It’s going to change the marketplace,” Moreland says. “You look at carbon credits coming, where we need to have a variety of different crops out there. I think a drone is going to be very valuable in doing that.”
Today, DJI drones are available from dealers in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska, in addition to Agri Spray in Missouri. Moreland expects the industry to continue to grow, and he plans to add dealerships throughout the Midwest. While he says he wants to extend reach, Moreland doesn’t want to sacrifice service and support.
Diederich says he and his father are among a growing number of farmers in their area who are adding drones to the farm.
“Anything where you don’t have to run down your crops is the best thing,” Diederich says.
He adds that he is excited to see how far the technology will develop and hopes anyone who starts using drones will join the community in learning how to best use them.