ST. LOUIS — Farmers may be getting serious about drone technology.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are moving out of the curiosity phase and are becoming a key tool on many farming operations. But are farmers still playing with the technology or using it as a serious management tool?

“At this stage, yes and no,” said Will DeHoogh, with Botlink. His company was one of several demonstrating the latest in drone technology at the InfoAg Conference here. “We have found that farmers are not able to fully capture this technology yet.”

Many are finding useful applications, however. Chris Edwards teaches drone use at Rend Lake College in Ina.

He is seeing more interest in the classes, which began in 2015. Some farmers are enjoying the novelty, and others are using data gleaned from flights to provide direction on management decisions.

“It’s a little bit of both,” Edwards said. “You can make real-time business decisions with data an hour old. Some is being done at the field level. You can fly your drone, hook it up to your laptop computer and immediately get results on what your problems are, like whether you need to spray or replant.”

While classes are becoming more common, most farmers are not yet in a position to accurately interpret all the data, according to DeHoogh.

“We can give them a high-definition map that shows them problems or good things that are happening in their field,” he said.

“But individual growers don’t actually have the training to interpret the information. We’re generally working with co-ops or crop consultants. We’d love to work with farmers, but most don’t have the individual training.”

Brian Grant of Drone Nerds has seen definite movement in effective utilization of information gathered by drone technology. The Florida-based company is seeing rapidly growing interest. That is partly because the technology itself has improved.

“The technology is finally starting to come together for the farming industry,” Grant said. “When drones became this new thing, everyone thought it would be great for agriculture. But the technologies weren’t really there yet to do what they needed to do.

“Some people got burned by it. They really didn’t get any information that was going to make them more efficient, harvest more crops and, at the end of the day, make more money.”

Advances in camera technology are driving much of the growth. Higher resolution means more precise aerial scouting, which in turn allows more precise and specific remedies to crop problems.

“When I first started three years ago, we were at 5 to 7 centimeters per pixel,” said Nat Hyde of the North Carolina drone and data company Precision Hawk.

“With new craft we have now, we are offering a centimeter per pixel at 400 feet. When you’re looking at that resolution, you can see individual leaves.

“We’ve had guys who look at a high-resolution drone image who can identify whether their problem is ragweed or some other type of weed, for instance.”

A complex system of thermal imaging can provide farmers with information on specific problems in a field, including nutrient deficiencies or disease pressure. Analyzing that information often requires knowledge off the farm, but that is changing.

“I think we’re going to transition into a space where farmers are doing a little more diagnostics and prescriptions for themselves,” DeHoogh said. “At least we hope so.”

Not only can drones identify problems in a field, but some can help remedy the problems. Drone Bots and other companies are marketing unmanned aerial vehicles that can carry tanks filled with fungicide or other chemicals to treat isolated issues in a field. One model displayed at the St. Louis conference can spray 7 to 10 acres.

Nat Williams writes for Illinois Farmer Today, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern Illinoisan.

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