Using drones for agriculture is still a fledgling business. Though the practice is slowly becoming an effective way of promoting crop biodiversity and sustainability. At a demonstration hosted by the Tecumseh Land Trust, Ohio farmers got a peak at what the future of agriculture could look like.
A group gathered at a soybean field at Shawnee Farms west of Springfield watched as a drone took off to broadcast wheat seeds 10 feet in the air. The drone is about six feet from one end to the other, and it’s got six propellers, some cameras and sensors.
Drones in agriculture can increase crop yields and minimize soil compaction — because heavy tractors aren’t driving over it — and reduce diesel usage. With its sensors, the machines can also collect data points like soil characteristics, detect insects or crop stress levels.
The group at Shawnee Farms was looking at how it could be used to apply cover crop seeds — crops like clover, legumes or radishes that have deep roots and restore nutrients to the soil.
Eric Stegbauer, owner of New Limits Ag, applies seeds and fungicide with drones. He said the industry has a lot of potential.
“We’ve had our bumps and bruises with it. A lot of it has to do that. We’re kind of rookies to it as well, and we’re learning the process and learning what the machines can actually do and can’t do, Stegbauer said. “The exciting thing is, where does this thing [go] 10 years from now?”
Though he said drones won’t necessarily replace other methods like crop dusters or helicopters.
“Our achilles heel would be the amount of acres that we can cover. We’re not going to cover the same amount of acres in a ground machine. A helicopter plane is going to cover,” Stegbauer said. “But where we feel like we can cut in acres, we don’t have to pull up in front of a tree line. We can definitely go under power lines that maybe an airplane can’t.”
The drones can also only cover about 30 acres per charge and carry up to 70 pounds worth of seed or liquid.
Stegbauer also said there’s still a lot of hurdles. The drones have to be registered through the FAA just like an airplane. Stegbauer had to get certified to fly a drone. Then there’s an exception he had to get from the FAA to spray or drop anything from a drone. He said the process may take up to two years.
For now, the technology remains in its infancy. Though you may soon see more drones hovering around farms. — if you haven’t already.
Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.