Farmers are getting more and more help from above these days.
Agricultural drones — little more than a novelty a decade ago — are becoming valuable tools on an increasing number of farms across the country. Their popularity is exploding along with their efficacy, especially in chemical application.
“Spray drones have become hotter than a two-dollar pistol,” said Jim Love, light robotics manager with Beck’s Hybrids. “They’re all the rage.”
Love has witnessed a rapid increase in use over the years as the machines take flight, literally.
“At first, I thought this was just going to be a cool thing that would keep people intrigued, but I grossly underestimated the acceptance rate,” he said.
Indeed, drones were originally used on farms solely to provide an overhead view of one’s land and crops. As their numbers grew and quality improved, farmers began using them in more practical ways, such as in scouting.
“Ten years ago, they were 2 or 3 pounds and had cameras like on your phone,” said Arthur Erickson, chief executive officer of drone manufacturer Hylio. “That was cool for seeing your crops and spotting things. Shortly thereafter, thermal, multi-spectral sensors were developed that could see beyond the spectrum of light. They were useful for crop health and soil health.”
Erickson said many people became disillusioned with the tools because their benefits were oversold.
“That burned a lot of farmers,” he said.
The evolution from eye in the sky to input delivery will revolutionize agriculture, many believe. Spray drones are becoming essential tools on many farms. Larger machines can treat acres more accurately and more economically than airplanes, in some cases. That is a big leap from data gathering.
“A few years ago, you learned what needed to be treated, but now big drones can treat those areas. It’s going to stick now because they’re actually creating value for the farmers,” Erickson said.
Texas-based Hylio is the only American company manufacturing drones, he said. Most on the market are made in China, including DJI, the drone leader.
“In price point and dependability, they lead the industry,” Love said. “But they’re a classic Chinese company — they’re uncooperative and don’t offer much service after the sale. They’re a pain, but they command the industry, and everyone uses them.”
Drones hold some advantages in spraying crops over field vehicles and airplanes. Even aerial applicators are incorporating them. Love witnessed use in Arkansas cottonfields, where the plants are defoliated from the sky.
“Down there, spray planes are everywhere,” he said. “And even those guys are thinking about adding spray drones to their mix. There are a lot of power lines and little fields where planes get to. If they can’t get into the corners, they struggle.”
Wet fields also make drone use practical.
“In some cases, it’s too wet to get the tractor out,” Erickson said. “If a storm rolls in, there’s also more fungus pressure because fungus thrives in wet conditions. You may not have a tool for that unless you have a drone. Helicopters or planes are often so booked and can’t get there for two to three weeks. By that time, it’s too late.”
He said drones are even more efficient and cost-effective than tractor-mounted sprayers because the downwash from drone propellers creates a fog-like consistency that covers plants better and delivers more chemicals.
“You can get as good or better penetration, because you’re using smaller droplets,” Erickson said.
Hylio’s drones range in price from $20,000 to $40,000, which includes accessories, attachments and software. The largest models carry 8-gallon tanks.
Love, who regularly tests commercial drones on farms, said some can cover 500 acres and run 90 minutes on a single battery charge. Some carry high-resolution 35mm cameras, something not available a few years ago.
Most common uses are fungicide and herbicide application, followed by insecticide and foliar fertilizers. While spot seeding is used in some cases, its impracticality in general will likely limit its widespread use.
While there is a learning curve for using large, sophisticated drones, it is nothing the average farmer cannot handle, according to Love.
“Running a spray drone is no more challenging than operating a combine,” he said. “The only difference is that most farmers have run combines at some level from the time they were children, so they’ve learned it at a slow rate. But at end of the day, it’s not really that tricky. In half a day you can take someone with zero knowledge and get them trained.”
The biggest problem facing the drone craze today may be lack of supply. Hylio’s Erickson welcomes more competition.
“Sales are growing exponentially. Demand is skyrocketing. But it’s still not enough,” he said. “There are large Chinese-based companies making them, but even they can’t keep up with demand. It’s open season. We need more people making these things.”