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Photo Provided By: Colby Ag Tech


By Brent Adams


Chad Colby gets excited when asked to talk about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in large agricultural operations because he sees the potential they have to save farmers time and money by arming them with real-time data that simply wasn’t available to them at scale a decade ago.

Colby, the general manager of agriculture equipment dealer Central Illinois Ag Inc., speaks at the level of a college professor when he breaks down the evolution of UAV usage on the farm, and is considered by many to be the foremost expert in the field. A licensed private aircraft pilot, he became interested in drones when farmers first began to test them for use in surveying their fields, around 2011.

Since that time, Colby said, UAVs have dramatically decreased in price while improving in technological capabilities, making them a vital tool for farmers who want an efficient way of surveying their operations from the sky. He said that the first-ever Federal Aviation Administration regulations, which went into effect August 29, 2016, provide important guidance for UAV pilots, while allowing users—including farmers—to use the tools in practical ways.  He also urges operators to understand any state and local drone-usage regulations.

The fact that farmers are using drones is yesterday’s news, Colby said. What is news, is just how rapidly the commercial use of drones is changing how farms operate. Costs used to keep many farmers away from what then was unproven technology. Today, farmers are seeing the benefits drones provide, and the decreasing cost of technology is prompting an increasing number of large ag operations to deploy remote sensing technology. He said a reliable drone today can be purchased for about $2,500, and operators need not spend more than that to get a top-notch setup.

“We have good, solid regulations and good new systems that have many capabilities,” Colby said. “My first drone cost about $5,000 and had various systems, but it probably wouldn’t do one-tenth of what some of the UAVs do today with only one system and at a much cheaper price.”

He recalled times on his family’s farm in Illinois, when he would go up in small planes owned by his uncle or the family banker to survey crops.

“In a plane you look at crops at 120 miles per hour,” Colby said. “It is kind of hard to see anything going that fast.”

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Photo Provided By: Colby Ag Tech

With a drone, which can be operated from a smartphone or tablet, farmers can survey roughly 160-acre sections and receive instantaneous data on their mobile device that can be used to assess crop growth and damage, heat dispersal, moisture, erosion, drainage and other factors, allowing them to make crucial, yield-saving decisions.

Nathan Bush, a crop consultant and drone operator with Franklin, Indiana-based Greene Crop Consulting Inc. has seen those decisions pay huge dividends in short order.

In the three years since Greene Crop Consulting began offering drone services, calls for those services have increased tenfold each year, Bush said. The company also provides agronomy solutions and crop insurance.

One of the most popular services Green Crop Consulting offers is crop surveying for herbicide applications. The drone can take photos of the field and identify where weeds are. Herbicide then can be applied to a small percentage of the total acreage, perhaps 10 or 20 percent, rather than having to cover the entire field.

“That’s an instant return on investment right there,” Bush said.

He added that Greene Crop Consulting also uses drones to scout fields, which saves farmers valuable time and money. Over the past three years, he estimates, the company has scouted “tens of thousands” of acres within a 100-mile radius of its Central Indiana headquarters.

“This process is three times more efficient than regular scouting, where you’re just wandering through the fields trying to find what you’re looking for,” Bush said. He added that the immediate availability of the drone data and imagery has been a tremendous selling point for Green Crop Consulting, which also performs soil samples and takes images for farmers growing test strips.

“You have to wait for satellite imagery, but you can get information right away with drones, and that’s important to farmers who need to make decisions quickly,” Bush said. “The more we fly, the more we figure out patterns and trends. It doesn’t replace boots on the ground, but it makes us better at what we do.”


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Photo Provided By: Colby Ag Tech

How the FAA’s drone regulations affect you

The early 21st century has seen the development of countless technologies that have had a serious impact on America’s agricultural landscape. One of the more recent developments to hit big ag is the use of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aircraft systems.

Drones are now used by farmers worldwide to collect detailed images of crops at a much lower price than those taken via satellite or using manned aircraft. With these images available, farmers often can identify everything from pest infestations to problematic growing patterns that might not otherwise be detectable. Other uses include monitoring livestock and spraying fertilizers and pesticides. One of the biggest perks, in addition to their sheer versatility, is that smaller drones tend to be fairly inexpensive, and they often operate on autopilot, which keeps necessary labor to a minimum.

But for all the benefits drones offer, there is a serious challenge facing drone use: ever-changing regulations. Mass-produced drones are a fairly recent technological development, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates their operation, is still running to catch up with rapidly increasing usage. As a result, rules are enacted regularly, which could potentially affect an operator’s drone-monitoring activities.

We’ll delve into how two key regulations—part of the FAA’s first thorough batch of drone-usage regulations released in 2016—factor into agricultural drone operation.

FAA Part 107

FAA Part 107 is perhaps the most notable unmanned aircraft systems-related rule, because it applies to virtually every drone under 55 pounds. The regulation requires unmanned aircraft systems operators to pass a test demonstrating certain aeronautical knowledge. Upon completion, the operator will receive an FAA certification that allows them to operate unmanned aircraft systems for commercial use. This covers many of the most common unmanned aircraft systems uses in agriculture, from monitoring yields to the development of intricate field maps. But, it is vital to remember that, while an FAA Part 107 certification is an excellent starting point, it comes with restrictions. That is where FAA Part 137 comes into play. 

FAA Part 137

Earlier, we mentioned that some operations use unmanned aerial systems to spray crops with fertilizer and pesticides. Sometimes, drones are even used to spray crops with water. To do so, operators must obtain a FAA Part 137 certification. This can seem frustrating, as the rule wasn’t developed precisely with unmanned aerial systems in mind. Unfortunately, unmanned aerial systems still fall under the definition of “aircraft,” and FAA Part 137 requires operators who intend to disperse agricultural materials, including seeds and chemicals, to demonstrate specific knowledge. 

FAA Part 137 certification includes an application process, a test and a demonstration that the unmanned aerial system is properly equipped for the intended aerial dispersal.

Other factors to consider

FAA Part 107 and Part 137 certifications often are enough to allow for the operation of most current agricultural unmanned aircraft systems applications. Operators also must be aware of any local drone regulations that may be in place, as many communities have enacted their own unique drone rules.  Also, as the technology evolves and new challenges arise, the FAA will continue to update its drone-usage policies. It is imperative that operators keep current on those federal regulation changes.



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