airplane_logoOne of the summer sights of interest on the southeast side of the UW-Fond du Lac campus is a group of dedicated hobbyists who fly model airplanes on a homesteaded patch of ground and airspace. I’m assuming the selected real estate was originally chosen because of a lone tree that provided shade for the pilots but didn’t impede take-offs or landings. The tree was shattered by a lightning strike in 2007, but the hobbyists invoked Pavlov’s dog behavior and just kept coming back to the same spot to fly their planes–tree or not.

The small planes these folks fly are miniatures of the real thing. It’s clear the owners take a lot of pride in their craft and enjoy jawing with others of similar ilk. I just like watching the planes fly as I drive by in my car and ponder what the damage would look like if I took over the aircraft reins.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s), also known as drones, have been front and center in the military and political world recently. Debates abound regarding the scope of our government’s reliance on drones, but that’s a discussion for another venue.

Several years ago I heard about the possibility of using UAV’s for agricultural applications. At the time, it seemed a bit far-fetched. Then last January I attended a crop conference and tradeshow in Madison. Buzzing over the tradeshow floor was a drone; a great marketing ploy that led people to the drone vendor’s booth like lost sheep on their way back to the flock.

More recently, the agricultural press has been flooded with articles about drones, the farmers who use them, and the research being done to enhance their utility on the farm. There are two types of drones being marketed for agricultural applications. The first is a fixed-wing model that looks like a miniature stealth bomber.

Fixed-wing models can fly for an hour and cover around 600 acres per flight depending on weather conditions. Wing spans are about five feet and they weigh-in at five pounds. This type is used for mapping entire fields.

A second type is the rotary wing model. This is the more expensive option, though the flight time is only 15 to 20 minutes. It looks like a helicopter with four rotary blades and weighs about four pounds. Covering 50 to 100 acres per flight, it is best suited for shooting live video or still pictures.

As you might surmise, these down-on-the-farm drones can be equipped with various types of photo and video equipment. The supporting software spits-out visual images ranging from still photos to detailed, high resolution infrared analytics.

Farmers and researchers are using the pictures to identify problem areas in fields, map yield potential, and quantify plant nutrition status. When done over several years, it then becomes possible to identify growth trends within field boundaries or confirm that a particular problem has been rectified. The information obtained by the drones is integrated into other site-specific management practices such as fertilizer and pesticide applications.

Other functions of agricultural UAV’s include using the aircraft to count and monitor cattle or insure that irrigation systems are working properly.

I’m pretty sure we won’t see a mad rush to employ drones on most Fond du Lac County farms. Many of our operations are smaller and less contiguous than other U.S. regions. Hence, to justify the cost we may need to come-up with our own innovative ways to put these mini-aircraft to work. I’ve been giving this some thought.

It seems to me a UAV would be a good substitute for a border collie; moving livestock to and from holding pens and pastures would be a breeze. This could all be accomplished from the comfort of the living room La-Z-Boy.

During the busy planting and harvesting season, no more will someone have to drive out to the field to deliver meals and beverages. All of the needed survival rations could easily be dropped by parachute at any designated GPS coordinate. The same could be done with needed parts and tools: break a mower sickle section…no problem…just have one flown-in to any location on the farm.

Are those pesky geese and deer causing crop damage? Let’s just say you could add some “special” equipment to your drone. This same approach could be taken for salesmen, DNR compliance officers, or extension agents. On second thought, perhaps it’s best to wait and make sure the kinks get worked-out before investing in this new technology.

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

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