Kristen Traugh

A Bird's Eye View: Drone Technology in Agriculture

A Bird's Eye View

See this article in the 2023 Spring issue of Wiregrass Land & Living Magazine!

With height comes perspective. Perhaps that is why humans are drawn to climb mountains, fly the skies and maybe even why children are attracted to trees and barn roofs. However that reason is definitely why drones have taken the world of agriculture by storm.

The spraying business in agriculture is a $36 billion industry, with about $5 billion going to custom applicators- the men and women with cropdusters, ground sprayers and, now, spray drones.

Drones are not new to the scene for rural landowners. Farmers and foresters have used them for years to gain a bird’s eye view of their crops. But spray drones- similar drones controlled from the ground with tanks for solution, a pump and pressurized nozzles to spray- are an entirely new piece of technology.

“We are really seeing a place for these drones especially on small acreage, high cash crop areas. Aerial application or a ground sprayer can’t always fit these places,” says Simer Virk, Assistant Professor and Extension Precision Ag Specialist at the University of Georgia. He’s been involved with drones for around six years and has seen them quite literally take off.

“I’ll go talk about precision ag at events in Tifton, around ABAC, or field days. There will be a few there to talk about planter technology. But a talk about drones? There’s young kids saying, ‘Dad and I are looking at going into business together’ and ‘How do you get a license?’ They have a good interest in technology. This is how we can bring them into ag, get their attention and maybe explore other areas of precision ag.”

“There are a lot of people trying out spray drones. We have a word for them. They’re called mass adopters. They test, try things out and see what sticks.”

One of these tech-savvy mass adopters is Alex Harrell of Flint River Irrigation in Leesburg, Georgia. He, along with his store manager, Johnny Villanueva, are pioneers with drones in the Southern landscape. They mainly deal with the DGI brand of drones. Within this line are three main sizes of spray drones- the T10, T30 and T40, with the numbers referencing the tank capacity in liters. Smaller drones are suited to spraying fencelines and the like, while the largest model has a dry spreader attachment and spinning disks instead of nozzles, which control the spray droplets to be 90% the same size.

Drone accessories are also on the market.

“We’ve seen people just take a chemical tote, premix it with water and stick a 12-volt pump in it.” Alex says. “But we also have a custom trailer with a holding tank, mixing vats, hose reels, pumps and soon a touchscreen to keep it all together. The key to efficiency is keeping the drone in the air, not on the ground.”

“There are as many options as you can dream,” Johnny continues. “There’s no cookie cutter solution.”

Efficiency while flying is also a major consideration.

“When you’re doing about 2-gallon work, it takes about six minutes to fly the tank out. Then you’re looking at 6 or 7 minutes to charge the battery. It takes three batteries to fly and spray continuously. We’re trying to keep everything in sync.” Alex says.

Most specifications depend on the tank size, and the gallons per acre for the spray job. But as a general rule, most spray drones are able to work 5-15 feet high and create 10-25 foot swaths. Most can spray between ten and forty acres per hour. They have radar for obstacle detection, which makes a sensitive “bubble” around the drone.

Not as much research has been done on the effects of wind speed and direction with spray drones as there has been with ground sprayers. Drift control nozzles are recommended and the best management practices with ground sprayers also apply here. The performance differs from drone to drone, but more testing is still going on.

Just like our tractors, there are guidance choices available with some spray drones. Basically, there is a WASS option with upgrades available to be similar to RTK.

“The technology is growing,” notes Simer. “Satellite correction like WASS is good enough for large scale work. For spot spraying or more specialized applications, you can get a base station by your spray area to receive correction. NTRIP is also like RTK. You have to be connected to Wifi or the Internet for that correction. But it’s really not on the same level as a ground rig. They are heavy, more stable and moving slower while drones are in the air and they hover. I really doubt it is sub-inch accuracy.”

However, the spray drones really shine in highly specialized crops, like orchards and vineyards. DGI software includes a fruit tree mode, where you can set a 3D flight path to hover, fly between rows or over the tops of the trees and bushes.

“Drones really improve canopy penetration,” Simer explains. “The propellor wash from the top will push the product down into the canopy. This is almost necessary in this application. Drones are a great fit while most orchards have to use air blasts from a sprayer to do this.”

Foresters have been accustomed to drones for some time now, using the cameras for efficient timber mapping. But the spray drones are also flown for special herbicide applications on cut over land to prepare for new tree plantings, especially since ground rigs aren’t such a great fit for this.

Spray drones have their place on row crop operations as well, particularly in reducing herbicide resistance.

“Drones can treat late season weed escapes,” Simer mentions. “Say you have 50 acres or a patch here and there where ground sprayers or aerial application is not efficient. It can be economical to have a drone spray. You can also use them for in season fungicide and insecticide applications; sometimes we call these rescue applications. A cropduster may not be available for the next week or two. Timely application can be the key to make or breaks a crop. Or it can be raining a lot, or you can have elevation challenges where other sprayers are not efficient. I’d rather fly than lose yield.”

Some drone models come with a spreader attachment that can be used to distribute cover crop seeds after the main row crops are harvested. In our area, the cover crop planting can be rushed as harvest may still be happening or running late and, in this case, drones can be especially useful. The same attachment can also be used for granular fertilizer.

When it comes to finding a spray drone operator to do custom work on your property, it’s best to verify they have proper flight licensing, a chemical applicator license and at least some type of insurance. Many people are new to this technology so Simer recommends making sure the operator knows the optimal settings for good coverage with the drone. Drift, product streaking and obstacles like powerlines can all be potential problems.

If you’ve decided to purchase a drone, it’s important to pinpoint how exactly it will benefit your crop production. Just as with any other spraying, it’s essential to keep records of flights and chemical applications. Deciding who on the farm will be responsible for necessary licensing and certifications is also necessary.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re flying a drone or a plane, you’re still in the air space,” Simer reminds. “The basic rules and regulations to fly a drone, not just a spray drone applies. For example, you should have a visual sight of the drone at all times. People get distracted but we have to do our part to be safe and efficient.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) governs the use of spray drones currently. Licenses are divided based on whether a full spray drone weighs more or less than 55 pounds. A private or commercial pesticide applicators licenses is vital for both though.

The benefits certainly outweigh any paperwork, especially to Alex and Johnny.

“I think people are seeing the timeliness of drones. You can be ready to spray very quickly,” says Alex.

When spraying, proper drone usage can reduce overspray onto areas near the crop. The mapping and data usually integrate smoothly into farm management programs.

“If you can operate a cell phone,” Johnny mentioned, “You can catch on quick. That’s what makes this so attractive.”

Brian Wilson, a Southwest Georgia Farm Credit relationship manager of 26 years, has had a front row seat on Alex’s drone venture.

He says, “Alex and his family have been long-time customers of Farm Credit. We have helped them with buying farm land and equipment. Farm Credit has a good history with them. When Alex said he wanted to develop the drone business, we took a leap of faith with our customer. We are here for the customer, not just the product.”

Brian is seeing the same benefits Alex noted, including the “out of the box” mentality.

“We are really seeing a place for the drone between a plane and a self-propelled sprayer. It’s something the famer can operate. And as chemical prices increase, it’s important to get coverage in the right places. We are expecting the technology and the prices at the entry point to get better. I’m very curious to see where this will go.”

Everyone involved seems to have their own opinion on the future of drones, but they all include progress.

“People try to put us in a box of specialized farming,” says Alex. “But drones can really be used on large scale applications too. I say in the next five years we will see drones at least in some capacity and then in ten years, it will be a common practice. I think it’s the biggest thing to hit ag since GPS guidance.”

“The change frightens a lot of established farmers,” Johnny agrees. “But we all need to have an open mind. We really haven’t even scratched the surface of what this technology can do.”

“The technology is still maturing,” Simer adds. “I’d say the technology should slowly find its fit in the next three to five years. The spray drone won’t disappear but the technology will advance an develop better systems. We will see how it matures and finds its place.”

With over 300 million acres in the United States used for crop production, there is certainly a slice of the pie available for custom drone application. Time will tell exactly how big that slice is, but, right now, the sky is the limit for spray drones.

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