Farmers: Hiring Drone Technology Can Help Increase Efficiency of Row Crop Operations

Farmers: Hiring Drone Technology Can Help Increase Efficiency of Row Crop Operations

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Will Hehemann School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences

Drones such as this Phantom 4 RTK can be used to give farmers high accuracy data about the elevation change across an entire field or simply where their irrigation tubing is set.

A farm may be the last place people expect to see cutting-edge technology, Dr. Henry English, head of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Small Farm Program, said. However, farmers are increasingly using high-tech devices in a type of farming known as “precision agriculture.”

“Precision agriculture takes advantage of the latest technology, including satellite technology, to optimize what is going on in the field,” he said. “The goal is to increase efficiency in the way crops are planted, irrigated and fertilized, which will ultimately result in increased production and profits.”

Dr. English said the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – more commonly known as drones – is a precision agriculture application that is becoming more popular on farms in Arkansas and across the U.S. In his work with the Small Farm Program, he is trying to spread the word among small and limited-resource producers about ways they may be able to take advantage of drone technology in the production of row crops.

“Lawrence Conyer and I invited Mike Hamilton, an irrigation instructor, to speak about the use of drones in agriculture at the National Black Growers Council field day, which took place in mid-June at Mr. Conyer’s farm in Pine Bluff,” he said. His presentation was about ways drone technology can be incorporated in the production of row crops, especially rice. It is important that African American and other minority farmers get familiar with these techniques as they can potentially make a big difference when planning or reworking irrigation practices, as well as other aspects of a row crop operation.”

Uses of drones on the farm

Mike Hamilton works as an irrigation instructor with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service and as an irrigation water management specialist with the Arkansas Natural Resources Conservation Service. He collaborates with farmers in Arkansas to help them increase their efficiency in all aspects of irrigation.

Mike Hamilton – photo credit: University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture/Ryan McGeeney

“The way drones have been used in agricultural irrigation has changed drastically in a short period of time,” Hamilton said. “Ten years ago, most growers and consultants used drones primarily for surveillance or visual observation of what was going on in their fields. For example, they might have flown down a ditch or stream looking for obstructions that were keeping it from draining. Some flew drones over fields to inspect crops damaged from weather-related issues or pests.”

In recent years, however, the use of drones in agriculture has moved past simple visual surveillance to include topographical mapping, measuring and thermal imaging, he said. Drones can be fitted with a range of sensors or cameras that serve a variety of purposes. For example, a drone fitted with a thermal sensor can provide assessments on plant health, while a drone equipped with a real-time kinematic base station can be used for elevation data.

“With topical mapping, survey drones can be flown over a field to give farmers high accuracy data about the elevation change across an entire field or simply where their irrigation tubing is set,” Hamilton said. “Since the farmers will be able to see the exact elevation of their poly pipe, they are able to create an accurate irrigation design that gives them the correct flow of water needed in every furrow depending on elevation, pressure and furrow length. This approach increases irrigation efficiency, saving the farmer time, labor, fuel and water.”

Elevation mapping from a Desha County field, indicating a 7-foot drop from the red to blue gradient.

Hamilton said the ability of drones to precisely measure areas is another benefit of incorporating them into an agricultural operation. They can be used to measure a damaged area of crops or even the size of an individual rice paddy, which comes in handy when planning multiple-inlet rice irrigation (MIRI) systems.

“Measuring the area of rice paddies for MIRI is crucial in getting everything set up correctly on the front end,” he said. “This sets the stage for an efficient rice irrigation design. Before the arrival of this technology, farmers either had to use an educated guess or they would have to measure the paddies manually, which was very time-consuming.”

Another drone application useful in the production of row crops is the use of normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), which creates a snapshot of photosynthetic vigor, Hamilton said.

“Researchers are able to take advantage imagery as they study different aspects of crop health and other variables in the field,” he said. “I used a drone equipped with a MicaSense Altum to monitor a cotton field infected with verticillium wilt. To give an idea of what the image display looks like, you could change the symbology of the photo so that healthy plants were green, plants in declining health were yellow and severely infected plants were red.”

Taking advantage of the technology (without owning a drone)

Hamilton said if a drone pilot is using a drone for business or anything work-related, they are required to pass an official test and have a license. They are also required to have their drone registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and adhere to the administration’s rules and regulations regarding the use of drones. While drone hobbyists are not required to have a license as of now, they are still required to follow the FAA rules and regulations.

With the use of drones in furrow irrigation, farmers can see the exact elevation of their poly pipe, allowing them to create an accurate irrigation design that gives the correct flow of water needed in every furrow depending on elevation, pressure and furrow length. This approach increases irrigation efficiency, saving the farmer time, labor, fuel and water.

“Farmers who want to take advantage of the benefits of drones in agriculture don’t necessarily need to go buy a drone and obtain a license,” he said. “In fact, besides obtaining a drone and license, the biggest bottleneck is knowing what software to buy and how to use it correctly. You have to know exactly how to manipulate the various software needed and use the data from your drone to get anything out of the imagery.”

So, what is the solution? Hamilton recommends farmers contact professional drone pilots and speak to them about their ideas and goals for using these technologies in their farm operations.

“It is relatively easy to find companies or freelance drone pilots capable of using this software and providing these imaging services,” he said. “I would recommend searching for someone for hire through word of mouth or social media. This will be a much cheaper alternative to buying a drone and software and obtaining a drone license. I know several certified drone pilots that have taken a class offered at Arkansas State University by my friend, Dr. Ahmed Hashem.”

Hamilton said farmers interested in hiring these services should start out in moderation.

“Farmers should pick a project – such as improving their irrigation or checking diseased or damaged crops – and then see if the use of drone technology is feasible or beneficial in that particular case,” he said. “Some may want to hire a drone operator when setting up their irrigation designs or preparing a field for row rice or MIRI to ensure more accuracy from the get-go.”

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer. 

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