Farmers apply precision technology to ag

Published online: Jun 11, 2014
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MOSCOW, Idaho—The first demonstration flight of Robert Blair’s unmanned aerial vehicle ended with a small crash only a few yards away.

But after a quick check found an automatic pilot issue, Blair’s research and development director Brad Ward were able to get the small plane—roughly three feet long with a four-foot wingspan—up and along a 20-acre route in the sky.

Blair and Ward set the 3-pound plane in flight as part of a demonstration during the University of Idaho’s Regional Approaches to Climate Change (REACCH) Precision Agriculture Technology Demonstration Day on the UI Parker Farm in Moscow, Idaho.

A wheat farmer in Kendrick, Idaho, Blair has been using unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, since 2006 to monitor his crop.

Blair said he can justify the expense of the technology, particularly with yield monitors, which paid for themselves the first year he used them, he said.

Blair estimated a savings of 20 to 25 percent using the technology, and said he gains in yield and test weight, since he’s not overusing fertilizer on shallow ground.

Blair recommends farmers start out small. The quickest return on investment usually comes from automatic steering and automatic spraying technology, he said.

Blair also recommends farmers get a yield monitor to begin collecting data, although he says there is a learning curve to start managing the information.

That learning curve may be one reason most growers are hesitant to adopt most precision technology, even though it’s available, useful, appears to offer a cost savings and seems to meet a need, says REACCH UI Extension specialist Kristy Borrelli.

“The ability of data has exceeded the ability to understand it and apply it,” she said. “There’s this large knowledge gap between developers and the users.”

The technology can be used to determine impacts of water, soil content or nitrogen on a field, said David Huggins, USDA Agricultural Research Service soil scientist in Pullman, Wash.

“Part of the confusion about all of this is many of these variables can vary not just from place to place in your field, but from season to season and from year to year,” he said. “This is really the root of a lot of risk or uncertainty in making a decision.”

“Right now, you need someone with the expertise to interpret the data,” agreed David Brown, Washington State University associate professor.

Brown expects the instruments to be most used by agricultural consultants.

Universities may have to consider offering short courses and training opportunities over the next few years, Brown said.

Blair said farmers are the best analyzers of the data precision technology can provide, which he said can go unappreciated by the industry.

Blair is hoping production agriculture will be involved in the Federal Aviation Administration’s efforts to develop rules for UAVs.

Currently, Blair can fly his UAV under hobby rules, keeping the plane 400 feet above ground level, within line of sight. Using the UAV for a commercial operation would require a pilot’s license, passing a flight physical and, since his plane is not large enough to bear a commercial number on its tail, he would have to follow it in a full-sized aircraft, he said.

“What a researcher needs for rules and regulations are completely different from what our needs are out on a farm,” he said. “If any agri-business type of company was on the rulemaking committee, they’re more than likely going to be looking out for their interests instead of what we need from a farm standpoint.”