Farmers find out more about what's happening in their fields with drones

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Corey Oeschger grows many crops on his Thumb farm, from beets to wheat. But it's his flock of drones that has really taken off in the past few years.

When he got his first buzzing farmhands in 2012, he expected to do business around just Huron County. Now farmers from Traverse City to Kalamazoo to northern Indiana hire Oeschager and his flock for aerial-analysis of their fields or buy drones from his Thumb Drone Works to do it themselves. 

Drones became about half of his business, he says. Farming beets is now "my day job," he says. "My drone business kinda started as a hobby that blew up." 

It was an expensive hobby, so he studied how to justify it on his farm's budget. Drones could spot problems in the fields quicker than the old method -- walking the rows. From the air it was easier to see spots that the fertilizer missed, irrigation problems, bad field tiles, and the like.

He invested in thermal and infrared cameras, drones that could gather NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) data, to spot what regular cameras and the human eye miss. Last year, during a dry summer in the Thumb, he got a grateful text from a neighbor after pointing out a patch of beets that infrared showed were not growing regularly. The neighbor discovered they were not getting water due to a plugged irrigation nozzle. "Saved him a couple thousand dollars," Oeschager says.

Drones that can practically fly themselves, carrying multispectral cameras and now LIDAR (laser radar), "all that stuff is the next big thing."  But the biggest advances Oseschager has seen in the industry is not so much in the equipment, but in the software. "What do you do with all these images?" How does the average farmer analyze complex data? 

The buzz from drones

UAV use in agriculture has been on the rise. 

A PricewaterhouseCoopers report put the agriculture drone market's worth at $32.4 billion in May 2016. Tractor makers Deere and Company and AGCO are getting into the drone biz. AGCO is now selling something more nimble than their usual hay-bailers, the SOLO AGCO a UAV that can capture hi-res maps of 240 acres in 20 minutes.

Drones are becoming essential in the precision agriculture trend, which combines technologies to ensure that crops grow healthy without wasting chemicals and water.

For various reasons, it's taking longer than the drone industry expected for some farmers to warm up to the idea of using the high-flying machines, according to a June 10 story in The Economist.

Pretty maps, lots of data

Bruno Basso, Michigan State University Earth and Environment Sciences professor, understands that farmers might be hesitant to spend thousands of dollars on high tech tools that might seem to be toys. "They don't like to take risks, and I don't blame them," he says.

Basso was taking his own risks in 2012 when he left his professorship in Rome in his native Italy, returned to his alma mater, MSU, and began to study the use of drones in sustainable agriculture. He went on to send $80,000 worth of drone, sensors and cameras into the sky to capture "spectral wavelengths... temporal frequencies... spatial resolution..." in detail. He needed to ask more-fundamental questions that the typical farmer would ask, hence the investment. 

Professor Bruno BassoBasso also worked with systems a farm could afford, to see "What would a much cheaper drone, with just a visual camera, do?" A simple "eye in the sky" is useful for farmers, he says. But there's more to be gained with more data. 

The "pretty maps," as Basso calls the results of his multispectral-capturing flights, are just pretty images, if they go unanalyzed. He's also developed software that combines the data with an area's weather records to run predictive simulations -- to, say, see what added fertilizer might do in a specific weather environment over the next year or next 30 years.

"It's pretty complex stuff," he says. 

For his system to be truly useful on a real-world farm it has to be something a farmer can use. "We feel that we're helping farmers to understand much, much more the interaction between spatial and temporal variability, which is at the core of precision agriculture."

Savings for the planet and for the pocketbook

Part of the overall goal of precision agriculture is to reduce environmental stress from farms.

But some farmers aren't going to spend money on new technologies just because they're good for the environment, Basso realizes. "These pretty maps, the farmers should not necessarily invest in, unless they see a value." 

Basso oversees 400 fields in the Midwest, with 100 in Michigan. At the end of the season they compare fields under the farmers' conventional management with those under Basso's drones and precision agriculture techniques. "And so far, the yields have all been the same, but we have allowed them to save nitrogen." These are good yields, he adds. Less fertilizer means less polluting runoff, but also more money saved by farmers.

His focus is on "development of both climate, nutrient and water-smart technologies." Fewer chemicals and less water wasted is good for the planet, but also good for farmers' pocketbooks, Basso emphasizes. 

"We need to see agriculture as a solution, not a problem. The farmer is one piece of the solution, and science and precision agricultural sciences, and technologies, that's the core of the future solution." 

"So anything that can be done to help farmers understand and adopt this technology, and to make the technology more solid, transparent, easy, transferrable, is welcome," he says. "We're working towards that." 

The issue of feeding a growing population, in a changing climate, should be addressed now instead of when "there are food shortages," Basso says. 

Farmers have a way with sticking with what's worked for them in the past. Basso predicts that drones and other technologies will become cheaper and more-prevalent as large farms become more prevalent.

Also, new generations, more-attuned to technology, will get into farming, he says. "When I talk to the younger managers, they just can't wait to see the drone coming to the farm, to see the maps.”

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in the Southwest Michigan area since 1992. He grew up on a farm, studied electronics and model rocketry in 4-H, so geeky subjects in agriculture are nothing new to him.
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