Drones: Agriculture from above

Drone footage shows a cornfield west of Mount Jackson. Courtesy photo

Something new is flying 400 feet in the air over some Virginia farms. They’re not birds and they’re not quite planes – they’re unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones.

Drones exploded in popularity over the last several years, between low-cost hobbyist models to high-tech camera-equipped models that have potential for companies like Amazon to use them to deliver packages.

As a result of their new popularity, the Federal Aviation Administration released new regulations for operating drones June 21, both commercially and recreationally.

No stranger to drones, David Moore is the president of Cornerstone Technology Services in Mount Jackson. Moore worked with drones during his service in the Navy, and added them to his services list last year. He said while his drone business is small at this point, the new regulations are favorable for the agriculture business, and that drones fly with tremendous potential for the industry.

“The main purpose of the drones is their use detecting a problem area,” Moore said. “Some damage is only visible with an aerial view.”

A drone scans a cornfield east of Mount Jackson. The drone can scan a field easily and spot problems more productively than walking a field. Rich Cooley/Daily

Moore’s process is simple. Because the new regulations require pilots to become licensed, Moore flies a drone he provides for clients equipped with a 4,000-pixel camera. He charges $65 an hour if clients act as his spotter – another regulation – and $110 if they don’t.

From the air, Moore said drones can see problems on a farm that are hard to spot from eye level. Because some crops can grow to be several feet tall and span for miles in breadth, it would take hours to walk and survey 100 acres of farmland. However, with a drone, Moore can do it in five.

The birds-eye view the drones provide can be used to infer if replanting is necessary, to specify how crops should be fertilized, or to assess damage after major weather events.

While Moore only uses a standard camera, some researchers are pushing it further to see what drones can do for farms. By attaching infrared and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index Cameras on her drones, Maria Balota, associate professor at Virginia Tech University, said she can get detailed information about canopy temperatures, chlorophyll levels, biomass and nitrogen status.

“We want to see if by using any of these sensors, we can speed up the process of breeding,” Balota said.

David Moore, president of Cornerstone Technology Services LLC, operates his company's drone. Rich Cooley/Daily /

Her vision is more extensive than Moore’s. By collecting massive troves of information with the different kinds of cameras and software analysis programs, Balota hopes to correlate some of that information with crop yield or disease to find correlated coefficients and best-practices to make agriculture a more precise science.

“I see a huge future for drones in precision agriculture,” she said.

While professionals can fly them and playing around, the steep cost of the technology is likely to keep most farmers out in the short run. Between Moore’s drone, the camera attached, his remote controller, spare batteries, case and iPad attachment to watch footage in real time, his materials cost between $2,500 and $3,000.

He estimated an infrared camera could cost an additional $6,000, thus he isn’t planning on buying one unless business picks up.

Both Moore and Balota emphasized that much of drones’ value comes from how they offer a new perspective of an owner’s crop, while cutting down immensely on surveying time.

David Moore, president of Cornerstone Technology Services LLC, operates his company's drone. Rich Cooley/Daily

“This thing can fly several orchards in a single day,” Moore said. “That’s a whole day’s work packed into five minutes.”

At the moment, a mad rush from farmers to the drone shop is unlikely, but Moore said he is hoping word spreads of how drones can help farmers. He’s working with the Virginia Cooperative Extension and speaking at 4H events to garner interest.

Meanwhile Balota is still gathering data and working to correlate it with plant behaviors.

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com


Video: http://www.nvdaily.com/?p=569452, courtesy of Cornerstone Technology Services.