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Expect farm drones to fly off shelves

By Staff | Mar 12, 2015

craig.reber@thmedia.com

Telegraph Herald

DUBUQUE – Those hoping for a glimpse into the future of agriculture can look to the skies.

According to attendees of the inaugural “Unmanned Systems and Agriculture: Realizing the Field of Dreams” conference on MArch 4, unmanned automated aerial systems are becoming increasingly important to farming.

“I think they’re going to want to bring to the farm something that’s going to be practical for them to use, get some results from it and increase the bottom line,” said Ed Ruff, an agriculture instructor at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore, Wis.

The conference, held at Dubuque’s Grand River Center, attracted farm operators, students and others from across the agriculture industry. The event was hosted by the Association of Unmanned Systems International Heartland Chapter.

Stewart Moorehead, Robotics Systems manager at the John Deere Technology Innovation Center in Champaign, Illinois., was the event’s keynote speaker. He described agriculture as an ancient field with room for innovation.

“UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are a very hot topic,” Moorehead said. “What can they do for farmers?”

Many things, he said.

“Unmanned systems will provide us opportunities to collect and utilize large amounts of data above the farm,” Moorehead said. “I think they’re going to help us improve the productivity of our farmers, help us increase yields, decrease costs and reduce inputs just through useful, actionable data.”

Rather than relying on a satellite, UAVs have the ability to stitch together large maps, can fly frequently, and are able to focus on trouble spots in the field, Moorehead said.

Agricultural drones are “a niche market and it’s going to be emerging,” said Brad Bollig, who farms in the Bancroft area. “I’m moving back to the family farm.

“I want to know how I can provide value to the farm. It’s something that the future’s going to hold, and I want to get a good foundation on it.”

Southwest Tech student Morten Reser lives on a 2,000-acre grain farm near Reedstown, Wisconsin. Monitoring those fields is a lot of work, he said.

“There was no good way before this to scout vast areas, and I want to learn about the (UAV technology) and see what it has to offer the community,” Reser said. “It’s really interesting.”

Duane Foust, physics lab manager at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, said he was impressed with the advances in visual technology.

“With the infrared systems, they can get the accuracy down and it’s going to be pretty sweet,” Foust said. “I’ve got a brother who farms south of Dubuque.

“I could see him really being interested in different areas of the property where he could increase or decrease the amount of fertilizer.

“Everybody’s concerned about run-off nowadays. Why would you not want to incorporate something like this, where you have actionable data, to be able to do a better job of farming?”

There are caveats attached to UAV systems, Foust said.

“There’s the cost,” he said. “You’re limited to a payload. One bad twitch on the control stick or a bad gust of wind, you’re down.”

Deb Ihm, an agriculture instructor at Southwest Tech, agreed that UAVs will have a place on farms in the future.

“As farm trainers at Southwest Tech, it’s figuring out our role in where do we help these farm producers understand how this technology can be used on their farms,” she said.

University of Dubuque officials are considering adding a UAV degree to its undergraduate offerings.

“It’s in the exploratory stages,” said Chaminda Prelis, an assistant aviation professor at UD. “There’s a lot of interest.

“We have a preliminary nod from the board of trustees and the advisory board. We’re looking at two to three years out.”

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