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Diving into drones

Nate Dorsey for Progressive Forage Published on 14 July 2016
View of a farm with a drone

Until recently, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, were primarily viewed as either a “cool toy” or the “latest and greatest” piece of technology only owned by the largest and most cutting-edge farms.

As the technology has become more accessible, drones can now be considered a practical business tool for all growers, including hay and forage producers.

Drones can, in a single flight, monitor crop health over hundreds or even thousands of acres. As a result, they’re enabling hay and forage professionals to spend less time on manual scouting and reacting to problems and more time proactively addressing field needs before major issues arise.

While UAS technology is appealing, many are wary because they feel they lack the skills to use one effectively in their business. Before making the leap into drone ownership, every grower should consider the following key areas: cost, regulations and personnel.

Cost considerations

Every equipment purchase, from the largest tractor to the simplest attachment, has to make financial sense. A drone is no exception to this rule, and cost should be a key consideration for any operation. Like many other equipment purchases, the adage, “You get what you pay for” holds true with drones.

There are several options for low-cost drones purchased from big-box retailers. While the low price tag may be attractive, these units are designed for recreational rather than professional use.

Software, high-quality cameras with the option to measure different bands of light, ease of use and overall durability often aren’t part of the package.

On the other hand, drones engineered for professional use are equipped with nearly everything needed to begin using them in a farming operation out-of-the-box. These units are engineered well, include flight-planning and image-processing software and often have great warranties and optional insurance plans.

When purchased at a reputable dealership, they also likely come with service and training from a knowledgeable product expert.

While the up-front cost for a professional UAS is higher than what one might find at a big-box retailer, there are virtually no ongoing costs.

As with any piece of equipment, proper care and operation is required to protect the investment and eliminate added costs – such as repairs or costly downtime if the drone is damaged or needs full replacement.

Flight safety should always be a priority, and it also helps to protect the investment. It’s important to consider personal safety, the safety of others that might be in the vicinity and the safety of the equipment.

Prior to creating a flight plan, a good practice is to review a current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Visual Flight Rules chart and the FAA’s “B4U Fly” app to determine that the target flight area is not within an airport’s 5-mile radius.

Next, do a quick on-site inspection of the area to note power lines, roads, housing developments and other obstacles that might not have been visible from the Visual Flight Rules chart. Not only are these practices courteous and safety-conscious, they’ll help prevent mistakes, possible damage to the equipment and FAA fines.

Respect to regulations

Going hand-in-hand with safety, regulations are a significant part of UAS operations. Anyone who has paid attention to drones in the media has heard about the regulations that come with ownership. Because drones are classified as an aircraft, federal regulations set the requirements all operators must follow.

Prior to June 2016, the FAA required all commercial drone operators to have a Section 333 exemption. This meant anyone planning to operate a drone for business reasons using the 333 exemption must have a valid pilot’s license.

This included a sport license, private license or other classification, as long as it was obtained through the FAA.

On June 21, 2016, the FAA announced and published the finalized rules for Part 107 with a proposed implementation date of August 21, 2016. Part 107 allows commercial UAS operators the ability to gain a “Remote Pilot Operators Certificate” which can be used to fly under the new Part 107 rule set.

Operators with existing 333 Exemptions may continue but must gain the new certification as well by completing an online course made available by the FAA. (A summary of the rule is available at FAA News.

In addition to Part 107, all drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) must be registered through the FAA UAS registration website. The registering owner must be at least 13 years old and a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.

Proper personnel

The final consideration regarding UAS ownership is one often overlooked: personnel. This doesn’t necessarily mean adding more people to a team but could mean developing the right person or people to make it successful.

In order to achieve the maximum benefit of the technology, it’s essential that someone have the resources needed to learn to operate and manage the technology for a business.

All decision-makers should ask themselves the following questions prior to a drone purchase:

  • First: “Do I have the capability to manage this process myself?”

  • If that answer is no: “Can one of my existing employees take ownership of this?”

  • If you’re still unsure, the question may be: “Do I need to hire an expert or someone who can be trained to be an expert?”

The quality of drone purchased will make a huge difference in how easily it is adopted into the business. In addition to engineering superiority, drones from reputable dealers often include software that allows them to fly autonomously, making them very easy to fly.

They often include access to software that simplifies post-processing of images by automating the stitching process of the hundreds of images taken in a flight into one seamless image.

Dealerships also have experts on staff to assist customers with the initial learning curve of the unit and technology, and may even offer services to help with image processing and analysis.

From research to reward

No longer reserved for an elite group of professionals, UAS ownership can be a practical and smart move for all growers. While it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and surging popularity of these units, a tactical and thorough evaluation is still a must when deciding if drone ownership is the right decision for your business.  end mark

PHOTO: View of a farm with a drone. Photo by Jaxon Tews.

Nate Dorsey is an agronomist with RDO Equipment Company. Email Nate Dorsey.

With additional contribution from Matt Hayes, mapping/UAV product supervisor, and Bill Edmonson, product specialist, both for RDO Integrated Controls and based in Billings, Montana.