Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Colby, Kansas (from Denver) to attend an unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV) workshop focused on applications for agriculture and precision farming. The workshop was organized by the Kansas Ag Research & Technology Association (KARTA) and the Northwest Area Extension Office of the K-State Research and Extension. The workshop was led by Lucas Haag, an assistant professor of agronomy and Northwest Area Agronomist with Kansas State University. While KARTA functions as an advocacy organization for production agriculture in Kansas, the academic groups provide “applied research and extension in crops, range, and soils to improve the productivity and profitability of our agriculture industry.”
I must admit that my understanding of agriculture is rather limited, as I have little to no direct experience of either working on a farm or living within a rural community. As a result, I assumed that UAV technology might not be well understood or received by this community but I couldn’t have been more incorrect in my assumptions (read: preconceived notions)!
The workshop began at a farm located about six miles northeast of Colby. Gathered at this site were about forty local farmers and three UAV vendors who provided a live demonstration of their aircraft over a small cornfield. The UAV vendors represented included Agribotix (Boulder, CO), APIS Remote Sensing Systems (Hays, KS) and Crop Quest Agronomic Services (Dodge City, KS).
Despite unfavorable weather conditions, the UAV vendors were able to successfully fly and capture imagery of a nearby corn field as the local farmers asked questions and discussed the capabilities of each system. Questions from the local farmers included how much acreage could be captured per flight, the battery life of the equipment, the resolution of the acquired imagery and other operational details. From my perspective, this demonstration was highly valuable to the local farmers, as it allowed them to see the drones in operation and understand the strengths and weaknesses of each system.
Afterwards, the workshop participants adjourned to the Thomas County Fairgrounds in Colby for a presentation on thermal imaging applications for agriculture, a panel discussion featuring local farmers already using UAVs to support their farm operations, and presentations from each of the UAV vendors. During each of these sessions, I was definitely impressed by the technical competency of the attendees, but also their interest and enthusiasm for the technology to support their farming needs.
Takeaway: Agriculture is Already a Sophisticated UAV Market
Following the presentations, there is no doubt in my mind that agriculture will continue to be a growing (no pun intended!) market segment for the unmanned aircraft industry. More than anything, the UAVs can help provide farmers with “eyes” on the entirety of their crops – a useful capability that identifies areas of concern within a field. This capability was also referred to as “crop scouting” or “in-field diagnostics”. The main benefit of using unmanned aerial vehicles for agriculture is that farmers can use the resulting information (ex. field imagery) to allocate their limited time more productively – a HUGE “win” for the agricultural industry!
Another takeaway from this workshop included the heavy utilization on normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) imagery to support agricultural analysis. In short, the farm attendees use NDVI imagery extensively to quickly assess crop health and identify “micro-areas” within their fields that may indicate potential issues with plant disease, irrigation problems or rodent infestations. The ability of a drone to capture NDVI data provides a wealth of intelligence to the farmer, who can then apply corrections and amendments to quickly rectify each situation. No doubt that this ability to efficiently monitor / model crops during the growing season results in better yield and increased profitability for the farmer. For example, NDVI imagery was presented that clearly showed the health of a corn field (see attached image) – an intuitive crop assessment that is easily validated by the farmer’s intimate knowledge of their land and its unique growth characteristics.
In summary, expect to see UAVs continue to significantly influence the agricultural industry, as its capabilities naturally match the immediate needs and requirements of the farming community, especially as it pertains to precision agriculture. Also, many thanks to the workshop facilitators, attendees and hosts – I enjoyed the event and learned a great deal over the course of the day!!