Starting with Drone Technology on Your Farm

June 30, 2024 7:00 PM
Blog Post

DJI Phantom Drone                                                                             DJI Mavic Drone                                                       

This article will provide introductory information to help you purchase and leverage a drone on your farm.  It is important to first understand that drones can also be referenced under several other terms including: UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), UAS (unmanned aerial system) or sUAS (small unmanned aerial system). Two primary classes of drones exist – fix winged and multi-rotor. Fixed wing drones are essentially very small airplanes with multi-rotor drones being aircrafts using 2 or more rotors being used for lift. In addition, two Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) classifications exist for drone usage in US airspace.

First is flying a drone for recreation use and is considered to be a hobbyist pilot by the FAA. As the term hobbyist implies, flights and drone use is for fun and not being used to generate revenue or business decisions.

Second is using the drone for commercial purposes including revenue generation and making informed business decision. Direct revenue examples may be selling images or video acquired or using drone as a service provider. Indirect revenue examples may be information gathering on cattle lots, field tile lines, or overall crop health with all these examples relating to increasing farm revenue. Therefore, most pilots in farming operations that will be using a drone will be classified by the FAA as commercial drone pilots.

FAA rules and regulations for a commercial drone pilot include:

  • Obtaining a FAA Part 107 Drone Pilot License;
  • Registering your done with the FAA unless is weighs less than 0.55 lbs. (must be 16+ years old)
  • Following a community set of safety guidelines
  • Fly at or below 400 feet (AGL or ground level) and fly below FAA-authorized altitudes in controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, and surface Class E designated for an airport)
  • Weather conditions conducive to drone flights
    • Many apps are available such as UAV Forecast to determine if flights are permitted
  • Give way to all manned aircrafts
  • Drone must be flown within line of sight without using any other visual aid

There are a lot of different drone manufacturers so some guidelines to consider before purchasing are outlined below.

The first question to answer is what is the goal and use with your first drone?  For example, is it to get a bird’s eye view of a field, visualize weed presence, locate drain tiles, determine crop health/stress level, quantify crop emergence/stand count, or monitor disease pressure?  This answer is important, so you purchase the right drone with the right options and features to meet your goals.

Now your use cases and goals are known, which drone is the right one to purchase?  There are a lot of drones under 55 lbs. on the market but consider buying a drone that is listed as RTF (ready-to-fly), made from ABS plastic, has GPS navigation functionality, ability to create a programmed flight plan, comes with a product warranty, and has obstacle avoidance technology.

The purchase price of a very simple drone starts at ~$600. For DJI products, this would be a DJI Mini 3 that can be manually flown to check on fields. Higher entry points of ~$5,500 would target a DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise that has the functionality to create a set flight plan that can be used for autonomous flights along a set path for image acquisition.

For those that are searching for the advanced level of drone, the DJI Matrice 350 RTK may be required for high precision mapping and capable of nighttime flight operations. The cost associated with these capabilities are ~$12,559.

Many farmers are interested in generating detailed maps of crop health usually decide to purchase a drone in the ~$6,000 range due to require camera specification and extended flight times. Note that you may also need to purchase a third-party map stitching software if you want to spatially analyze images captured.  A couple of the more commonly used software options include DroneDeploy and PIX4D.

Additional costs following your initial purchase may be needed to get the best performance and efficiency. Commonly purchased accessories are extra batteries, memory cards, carrying case and vehicle chargers.

For additional information and resources on equipment and technology then consider registering and attending the Introductory to Agricultural UAV (Drone) Technology Workshop

Scheduled on Tuesday, July 30, 2024, at the Southeast Research and Demonstration Farm (3115 Lousia-Washington Rd., Crawfordsville, IA); click on this link;  Drone Workshop