Farmers: Hiring drone technology can help increase the efficiency of row crop operations

Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Humanities

Drones like this Phantom 4 RTK can be used to provide farmers with high precision data on elevation change across an entire field or just the location of their irrigation hose.

A farm may be the last place people expect to see cutting-edge technology, said Dr. Henry English, director of the small farm program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. However, farmers are increasingly using high-tech devices in a type of farming called “precision farming”.

“Precision agriculture takes advantage of the latest technologies, including satellite technology, to optimize what is happening in the field,” he said. “The goal is to increase the efficiency of how crops are planted, irrigated and fertilized, which will ultimately result in increased production and profits.”

Dr English said the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – more commonly known as drones – is a precision farming application that is becoming increasingly popular on farms in Arkansas and across the United States. . In his work with the Small Farm Program, he tries to educate smallholders and growers with limited resources on ways to take advantage of drone technology in row crop production.

“Lawrence Conyer and I invited Mike Hamilton, an irrigation instructor, to speak about the use of drones in agriculture at the National Black Growers Council’s field day, which took place in mid-June in Mr. Conyer’s farm in Pine Bluff,” he said. . His presentation focused on ways drone technology can be incorporated into row crop production, particularly rice. It is important for African American farmers and other minorities to become familiar with these techniques because they can potentially make a big difference when planning or redesigning irrigation practices, as well as other aspects of a farm. row crop operation.

Uses of drones on the farm

Mike Hamilton works as an irrigation instructor with the Agricultural Extension Service of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and as an Irrigation Water Management Specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service of Arkansas. He works with farmers in Arkansas to help them increase their efficiency in all aspects of irrigation.

Mike Hamilton – photo credit: University of Arkansas Agriculture System Division/Ryan McGeeney

“The way drones have been used in agricultural irrigation has changed dramatically in a short time,” Hamilton said. “Ten years ago, most growers and consultants used drones primarily for surveillance or visual observation of what was happening in their fields. For example, they may have walked down a ditch or stream looking for obstacles preventing it from flowing. Some have flown drones over fields to inspect crops damaged by weather problems or pests.

In recent years, however, the use of drones in agriculture has gone beyond simple visual monitoring to include topographic mapping, measurement and thermal imaging, he said. Drones can be equipped with a range of sensors or cameras that serve various purposes. For example, a drone equipped with a thermal sensor can provide plant health assessments, while a drone equipped with a real-time kinematic base station can be used for elevation data.

“Using thematic mapping, survey drones can hover over a field to provide farmers with high-precision data on elevation change across an entire field or just the location of their tube. irrigation,” Hamilton said. “Because farmers will be able to see the exact elevation of their poly pipe, they are able to create an accurate irrigation design that gives them the correct flow of water needed in each furrow based on elevation, pressure and furrow length.This approach increases irrigation efficiency, saving the farmer time, labor, fuel and water. »

Elevation mapping from a field in Desha County, showing a 7 foot drop from the red to blue gradient.

Hamilton said drones’ ability to accurately measure areas is another benefit of integrating them into a farm. They can be used to measure an area of ​​damaged crops or even the size of an individual paddy field, which is handy when planning multiple inlet rice irrigation (MIRI) systems.

“Measuring the area of ​​rice paddies for MIRI is crucial to get everything set up correctly up front,” he said. “This paves the way for efficient rice irrigation design. Before the advent of this technology, farmers had to either use an educated guess or measure the paddy fields manually, which was very time-consuming.

Another useful drone application in row crop production is the use of normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), which creates a snapshot of photosynthetic vigor, Hamilton said.

“Researchers can take advantage of images when studying different aspects of crop health and other field variables,” he said. “I used a drone equipped with a MicaSense Altum to monitor a cotton field infected with verticillium wilt. To give an idea of ​​what the image display looks like, you can change the symbology of the photo so that healthy plants are green, declining plants are yellow, and severely infected plants are red.

Take advantage of technology (without owning a drone)

Hamilton said if a drone pilot uses a drone for business or any other work-related work, they must pass an official test and have a license. They must also register their drone with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and follow the administration’s rules and regulations regarding drone use. Although drone enthusiasts are not required to have a license at this time, they are still required to follow FAA rules and regulations.

Through the use of drones in furrow irrigation, farmers can see the exact elevation of their polythene pipe, allowing them to create an accurate irrigation design that gives the right flow of water needed in each furrow depending on the elevation, pressure and length of the furrow. This approach increases irrigation efficiency, saving the farmer time, labor, fuel and water.

“Farmers who want to reap the benefits of drones in agriculture don’t necessarily need to go buy a drone and get a license,” he said. “In fact, besides getting a drone and a license, the biggest bottleneck is what software to buy and how to use it properly. You need to know exactly how to manipulate the various software needed and use the data from your drone to derive something from the imagery.

So what is the solution? Hamilton recommends farmers contact professional drone pilots and talk to them about their ideas and goals for using these technologies in their farming operations.

“It’s relatively easy to find companies or independent drone pilots who can use this software and provide these imaging services,” he said. “I would recommend looking for someone to hire through word of mouth or social media. It will be a much cheaper alternative to buying a drone and software and getting a license from I know of several certified drone pilots who have taken a course offered at Arkansas State University by my friend, Dr. Ahmed Hashem.

Hamilton said farmers interested in hiring these services should start in moderation.

“Farmers should pick a project — like improving their irrigation or controlling diseased or damaged crops — and then see if using drone technology is feasible or beneficial in that particular case,” he said. “Some may want to hire a drone operator when setting up their irrigation designs or preparing a field for row rice or MIRI to ensure greater accuracy from the start. .”

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its outreach and research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion , age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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