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Is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for You?

February 16, 2017

Along with my agribusiness class, I watched, in considerable awe, the beautiful video images of the fields and facilities of a local seed company as they were projected on the classroom screen.

The soundless video showed crystal-clear footage taken from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), also called a drone and, by the Federal Aviation Administration, an unmanned aerial system (UAS).

Two decades previously, my family received a knock on the door of our farmhouse in central Illinois. Our visitor had, for our purchase, an aerial view of our farmstead. That photo proudly hung center stage in the kitchen during our decade tenure on this farm.

Reflecting back on that static, almost-in-focus shot of our home while watching the video of farmland and facilities using today’s technology was like listening to the chirp of multiple auto-start remotes at the end of the work day while remembering our traditional method of sending one of the kids out to start the truck on a cold winter day. That UAV technology is here is not news. Nor is the potential of this technology for our personal lives, businesses, farms and ranches, and to improve monitoring and sampling capabilities for researchers, public entities and others. In agriculture, a multitude of uses have been identified and are being applied or undergoing empirical research.

It is said that most agricultural applications for UAVs will fall under the realm of precision agriculture or safety. Throughout the popular literature, we find references to the role of UAVs in achieving tasks that best fall under one or more of the four D’s: dirty, dangerous, difficult or dull. One might more specifically define many of the direct applications to agriculture as falling under the categories of improving the efficiency of tasks that ordinarily place high demands on time and making possible those that improve the efficiency of the use of our resources, thereby also reducing costs.

Examples of the use of UAV direct visuals in precision agriculture include evaluating planting success, crop scouting, and locating and counting livestock. The use of thermal imaging and other technologies also can help producers predict yield, follow crop growth, identify weeds, and provide early warning of animal illness, heat detection and timing of calving. In addition, UAVs have been used to support and promote value-added services for such ventures as agricultural tourism. The list of applications will only grow.

While the evolution of this technology and its application is fascinating to follow, the question facing many farmers and ranchers is whether they should use the technology and, if so, how to begin.

As an economist, the easy answer is that the adoption decision should be made based on the expected return on investment. What is important is that the estimated return on investment be based on its value, not in generating data, but in facilitating management decisions that improve the efficiency and profitability of the operation or otherwise help producers meet their goals. While those goals are not all cost and revenue oriented, certainly these are top-of-mind considerations for the farmers and ranchers of today.

When talking to producers about the decision, two general arguments arise. The first is that now is not a good time to invest in the technology because its value in increasing revenues per dollar spent is diminished by low commodity prices. The more common argument is that now is a good time to consider the technology because low commodity prices require that producers find more operation efficiencies, such as those this technology can help provide.

Assuming the second argument is correct, or to test whether it is correct, we advise approaching the decision like any other farm investment decision, from hiring a crop scouting service to purchasing new equipment.

The first step is to identify the need, that is, the problem. If the UAV is to provide additional or more detailed information, that information is of value to you (fills a need) if it improves your ability to make decisions.

Coming up with examples of need is not difficult: Does the emergence rate justify replanting the field? Am I applying too much herbicide or applying the right amount of nitrogen throughout the field? Can I do without my retiring cowboy if I can find a means to otherwise track and manage my cattle?

The second step is to identify alternative solutions and compare their ability to help you make your operation more efficient.

You also will need to decide whether to purchase or lease a UAV. The choice will depend on the net purchase cost, operation and maintenance costs, the kit of tools you need to meet your goals, and data analysis.. Once you know what owning a system will cost, you can compare that to leased systems, with or without full-service, in-flight data analysis.

For those who want to solve problems that do not require longer-term monitoring, such as identifying drainage structural issues or determining locations for crop scouting, renting a UAV service may be the right option.

This option avoids the cost associated with obtaining the UAS pilot certification required under the FAA’s new Small UAS Rule (Part 107). Visit for details on the rule and certification requirements. Renting a UAV service also allows you to see what features and support you need for a potential future purchase.

Many UAS models are available, and more are being introduced commercially, including fixed-wing, helicopter, and multi-copter, and battery- and fuel-operated. The key features are price, coverage range, flight time, weight capacity and multi-use ability.

Other features that may be important, depending on your intended use, including auto-drive and the ability to override it in favor of manual operation, crash avoidance and return-to-home features, the ability to view imagery during flight, thermal imaging, hyperspectral and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) capability, camera zoom and software capability. Some potential UAS purchasers will be comfortable relying on a trusted sales professional, while others will prefer to conduct research or rely on other traditional information sources for vendor and capability comparisons.

Source: Cheryl J. Wachenheim, North Dakota State University