MANKATO - Most people think Aerial Drones as something used on the battlefield, but what about a cornfield?
Farm Intelligence out of Mankato has been using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for the last three years to provide farmers with detailed crop analysis. In the last year the UAVs from Farm Intelligence have completed 6,000 flights.
CEO Jerry Johnson said the idea to use UAVs in farming came to him after hearing a report on Minnesota Public Radio about a farmer in England using drones to fly over his field.
Staff photo by Clay Schuldt
Farm Intelligence CEO Jerry Johnson quickly assembles the components an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. The total weight of the UAV is approximately 3.5 pounds.
A Farm Intelligence UAV is launched by an employee. Once the flight plan is program the drone is easily launched by hand similar to throwing a paper airplane.
WingScan provides farmers with a Multi-View aerial imagery of a farm field. The multiple images allow personalized viewing preference that show soil, crop gaps, stand population, even nitrogen levels.
"I thought, holy smokes, that's an interesting idea," Johnson said.
Many in the American ag industry agree. Johnson explained that for years farmers have understood the merits of aerial photographs. In the past, farmers would hire a pilot to fly over the field, but Farm Intelligence's UAV has streamlined and improved the process. The benefit of using a drone over a standard plane is the special sensors. The sensors provide vital image data on a field. With the right type of sensor, a UAV is capable of detecting nitrogen stress, variability in plants, and crop diseases.
"We can get very specific," said Johnson.
Johnson compares the drone UAV's sensors to the MRI machine a doctor uses. "We can't take the corn plant to the hospital, so we take the same imager an MRI might have and flying it over the field."
The UAV resembles a remote control airplane weighing only three and a half pounds. The remote is actually a laptop computer. The flight plan is programed into the UAV autopilot.
The UAV uses a military grade autopilot that keeps it on course. The UAV operators launch the drone by throwing it, similar to throwing a paper airplane. Once in the air each section of a field is photographed with multiple sensor lenses to detect crop problems. A 160 acre field represents 1000 individual photographs. The current UAV model has two sensor lenses, but the company is working on a four-sensor model.
Once the data is collected. the information is uploaded by special software called WingScan. The information is then sent to farmers as a report to assist in making real-time and future decisions to achieve the best crop yields. The information provides an in-depth of analysis that allows farmers to target special areas.
Farm Intelligence Sales & Marketing Administrator Beth Colway said this is an environmental benefit. In the past, a crop infested with aphids, for example, would result in the entire field being sprayed with pesticides. WingScan will detect the specific plants affected by aphids, allowing targeted applications and limiting the amount of pesticides needed.
A single farm UAV with all equipment runs $25,000. Many farmers choose to hire the services through dealers or partner with a group of farmers. Over one hundred Vireo units have been sold this spring. Johnson estimates that Farm Intelligence is probably the leading seller of UAV for agricultural use. The farm drones have been sold throughout the farm belt in the Dakotas, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana.
For Farm Intelligence, UAVs represent the future of farming technology and it is spreading fast. Johnson said, "I can't pick up a farm magazine without reading about UAVs."
In addition Johnson has served as guest speaker and numerous agricultural events.
As more people in the Ag world becoming exposed to this new technology, the sight of a UAV on the farm could be as common as a tractor.