Farm Horizons, June 2016

Overlooking fields from above: Drone technology merges into agriculture

By Jennifer Von Ohlen

Technological advancements are a common occurrence in the modern world, but often these advancements are for personal use, such as an upgraded cell phone, a new car, or a watch that can receive emails. Farmers, however, are starting to explore using drones to feed the globe.

Drones have been in conversation with American agriculture for roughly six years, following Asian countries such as China and Japan who have been using the technology for a much longer time.

However, the United States is considered to be among its early adopters. Dassel-Cokato High School (DCHS) agricultural instructor Eric Sawatzke anticipates drones will be used quite often in the near future, due to the vast areas of farmland in the US.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, about 51 percent of the US land base (including Alaska) is currently dedicated to agricultural purposes.

While drones may seem similar to large remote-control airplane toys, they can be equipped with basic-level sensors able to register data invisible to the naked eye.

One such use is monitoring near infrared (NIR) levels in crops.

As plants absorb sunlight, they do not take in the infrared energy of the spectrum. Therefore, if a drone’s sensors are only detecting NIR waves being bounced back, the farmer knows the plants are receiving the nutrients they need.

If more energy waves start to appear, however, the farmer can instantly tell which part of the field is sick, and can treat that area quickly and precisely.

Drones can be used in a similar way when raising livestock, such as monitoring body temperatures to detect sick animals or locating them in spaces with a lot of land.

Since drones cover large areas quickly, farmers no longer have to spend time walking the fields to analyze crops and waterways, and can instead address what needs attention immediately.

Some drones are also equipped with spot sprayers to directly target crops suffering from aphids or disease, rather than taking sprayers to the field, which allows farmers to reduce costs by using resources more effectively and efficiently.

However, because using this technology for agricultural purposes is still in its early stages, Sawatzke explained that training farmers to use it poses a challenge because “everyone is learning it at the same time.” In addition, technology is continually worked on and improved, and those advancements will require further learning throughout the years.

Nevertheless, Sawatzke remains optimistic, recognizing that “agriculture has always been a quick adapter,” acknowledging agronomy in particular.

DCHS recently purchased a drone for district use, with Sawatzke representing the school’s agricultural department and the benefits of using this technology in the classroom.

“We are training the next group of workers,” he stated, continuing to say the students taking agriculture classes will be among the first people entering the world with drone-agricultural technology and will be taking jobs that have not been created yet.

Rather than waiting for them to learn how to use this technology in college or after, the DCHS ag department is creating the opportunity for students to learn now, to be ahead of the trend, and to perhaps become leaders in its ongoing development.

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