There’s a buzz overhead. On the news. Maybe coming from your shopping list for spring crop inputs.
It’s about drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Also known as Unmanned Air System (UAS), depending on who’s talking.
The buzz about UAVs is that sales are soaring. The U.S. Consumer Electronics Association projected sales of roughly 700,000 UAVs in 2015 – a 60 percent increase over 2014.
For now, most owners are enthusiasts, hobbyists who want the bird’s-eye view. UAVs are being built in home shops, being raced, being used for movies and for rescue. Some micro-drones are palm-sized like sparrows; some are bigger than California condors.
Some of the biggest benefits are expected in agriculture. According to a 2015 study for the American Farm Bureau, the return on investment that UAVs can provide through enhanced crop scouting is $12 per acre for corn, $2.60 per acre for soybeans, and $2.30 per acre for wheat.
A free Drone Flight Calculator based on that study now is available for your own calculations through UAS Vision, an independent global forum, at: http://www.measure.aero/drone-value-calculator/
For this update, Newground talked to a UAV owner and a consultant on both sides of the border.
Helping customers with a UAV
Brent Titus, an Arysta LifeScience territory sales manager in Illinois, is one of the early adopters of UAVs. He purchased a ready-to-fly four-rotor DJI Phantom 3 in May 2015. To the basic package, he added a high-tech controller and an LCD monitor.
“It added up to about $3,100 for the whole setup, including extra batteries,” Titus says.
His 12-year-old son was first to fly it.
“We just took it up in our own yard and did an aerial view of our property. It’s pretty easy,” he says. “If you’re having issues, you can just click the switch that says ‘return home,’ and it will land within 10 feet of where it took off.”
Did having a UAV help his customers this past year? Absolutely.
“It establishes credibility,” Titus says. “A farmer and myself were walking fields and could see no visual difference in treated and untreated areas. We got the UAV out, and when we looked at the drone videos we could pick up the differences. You get a way broader perspective for what’s going on in a field, as opposed to looking at plants side-by-side.”
But, he also warns, UAVs can develop problems. They can lose a GPS signal, fly out of range, crash in a corn field.
Reduce the risk potential, he suggests, by asking about upgrades like a better controller or, alternatively, “Spend the next thousand dollars, and get one that’s going to do what you want.”
Titus has an entry-level model. His model can hover close to get high-resolution details showing plant health and weed issues. It travels safely in a padded, hard plastic case; can be airborne in 10 minutes; and can generate a lot of value for the investment.
“First step, read the regulations and decide whether you can live within them. Be really careful about the FAA rules. Then, if you get a UAV, be prepared for phone calls from friends wanting you to come fly their fields, too,” Titus says.
UAVs over Canada
Green Aero Tech has become one of the first companies in Canada to offer custom UAV flying service for clients from British Columbia to eastern Ontario. Last season it flew 100,000 acres, mostly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The company’s UAV inventory includes three multi-rotor and three fixed-wing models. Flying times range from 18 minutes to 50 minutes. The most expensive one is a $90,000 fixed-wing UAV with real time kinematic (RTK) capability.
The UAV service package options can include crop health, canopy cover, weed identification, elevation mapping, 3D modeling, sub-inch mapping, topographic surveying, vegetation health and more.
As a flying eye in the sky, the typical UAV weighs less than five pounds. It can be seen for only a few hundred meters. High-performance units may require massive amounts of computer processing power. You may need an agronomist to interpret the images.
Brothers Curtis and Scott Hiebert founded Green Aero Tech in 2013. Technology director Warren Genik, Swan River, Manitoba, became a Green Aero Tech partner in 2015.
According to Genik, any UAV flying over a crop is viewed as commercial operation by Transport Canada. The UAV owner needs business liability insurance. It needs to be registered, and the operator needs accredited UAV training.
Genik says, a few large farms fly the Swiss fixed-wing senseFly eBee. It has more bells and whistles than a multi-rotor UAV, but it’s a different investment for a different purpose.
“The expectation is very important,” Genik says. “Flying a drone over a field doesn’t guarantee it will show you anything useful to your operation. Find out if you’re going to be able to use broad data, or very focused data. Find out if your data will need a lot of processing and interpretation, to get what you want.”
“It’s very important to know what you’re looking for. Know before you buy, or it could become a pricey shelf ornament.”
More UAV resources and reading
UAV rules in the United States
- A long-awaited ‘small UAS rule’ from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is due for release in late spring 2016. The proposed 48-page rule can be found at: http://www.regulations.gov
- In the meantime, it is important to know that all UAV craft must now be registered and marked with identification before you can operate them outdoors in the United States, no matter the purpose. That became mandatory on Dec. 21, 2015, with a grace period that ended Feb. 19, 2016, for drones purchased before Dec. 21 last year. The FAA portal for UAS registration is www.faa.gov/uas/registration/
- You can also read more here. Know Before You Fly is operated by two leading UAV organizations – the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the Academy of Model Aeronautics. They operate this educational website for the industry in partnership with the FAA. It is frequently updated and intended to promote safe, responsible flying.
- Commercial operators -- which under current rules includes even farmers who use UAVs to scout their own crops as well as UAV consultants who scout, even if no money changes hands -- have to apply for a Section 333 exemption from the FAA. And to get the exemption, the pilot in control must have a pilot certificate. This is a good place to start for official information: http://www.faa.gov/
- Note: this is only a basic summary of what was required as Newground went to press. Much will change when the FAA rule is published. Please refer to official government websites for specific information. Portal for FAA UAS information and regulation: www.faa.gov/uas/