Rise of the field drones

When the corn begins to grow in research fields used by the University of Illinois, a robot sets to work.

It goes up and down the rows, hoeing out weeds and applying herbicide. It is slow, but it works 24 hours a day in most kinds of weather and has few needs except batteries and a computer signal.

Welcome to the future — and it’s already here.

That was one of Tom Staples’ points during a talk at the Agronomy Update in Lethbridge Jan. 21.

The director of Echelon for Crop Production Services said precision agriculture will have new meaning in the future with applications beyond yield maps and variable rate agronomic prescriptions.

Most farmers use guidance systems and autosteer, which are promoted by equipment dealers. Staples said mapping and variable rate technology, which is promoted by consultants, has had slower adoption because it generates large amounts of data that requires expertise to interpret and apply.

The third wave, data collection and push-button ease of use by farmers, is not that far away.

“The real new frontier is to take all of that data and start to be able to ask questions of it and really, ideally get it down to be as simple as what Google did for the internet,” said Staples.

“We’re not far away from having that sort of technology and simplicity with agricultural data. I would say probably within five years we’ll have something that’s close to it, definitely within 10.”

Staples acknowledged the recent popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, but also noted their current limitations as well as their future promise.

They are already useful to scout livestock and inspect dangerous or inaccessible places, but drones for crop use are less user friendly.

Staples said it takes at least an hour to set up and fly a quarter-section field and another 16 hours to create a usable file from the data. At that pace, a farmer could scout the same field in the usual way and in less time.

“There’s a lot of promise when it comes to UAVs but we’re not there yet.”

High resolution images from UAVs could allow agronomists to identify disease symptoms, types of weed and other crop issues without being in the field, which would save farmers money.

“That’s the promise of UAVs.”

He showed a photo of a mosquito-sized drone with a camera in its nose. Theoretically, a swarm of these small units could invade a crop and look at individual plants. Variable rate, taken to its extremes, could provide water and nutrients on a per-plant basis.

Staples said high resolution sensors that measure soil moisture content are already being used in Nebraska, feeding data into irrigation systems that apply the precise moisture needed.

Monsanto’s purchase of Climate Corp. in October was another signal of things to come, Staples said.

“What Monsanto is up to is, they’re working to refine their pipeline using digital technologies to modify, to collect information, so that they can modify their pipeline of genetics.”

The company could use information on how genetics are influenced by climate, weather and conditions in a specific area to provide solutions for isolated sets of circumstances.

“It’s a very different way of looking at collecting information for plant breeding than what we’ve done traditionally,” said Staples.

It emphasizes the importance of data collection, storage and use, he added.

A typical quarter-section yield map generates one million discrete points of data. If that could be layered with yield, fertilizer and pesticide data and specific weather conditions, “all of a sudden we can ask the question behind the question. We’re at the cusp of this next technology being started to be adopted across Western Canada, and the secret sauce is, I want to be able to push a button and have that information serve up to me something that I can make a decision on.

“When the ‘Google’ comes along that can do all of that … in such a way that you can make actual decisions on it, that’s when we’re going to see that 100 percent adoption of using that data.”

Fortunately, data storage is getting cheaper. Staples said it cost $437,000 to store one gigabyte of data in 1980 but by 2013 it was less than a nickel.

Data has value to the individual farmer and potentially even more value if combined with other data, said Staples. He advised farmers to keep that in mind and to use one of the oldest technologies: paper.

“If you’re sharing information with somebody … when it comes to your production data, your business data, your financial data, try to understand before you share it with somebody, understand how your data is going to be used. Get it on paper as to how it’s going to be used.”

Contact barb.glen@producer.com

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