There’s been much ado about drones – from Amazon’s dream of using them for delivery to a variety of uses for gathering news photos, sports coverage or even enforcing border patrol. Drones are no longer an idea that is “pie in the sky,” they are a reality with real-world applications.

Near Chico, California, Justin Garcia is actively using drone technology on his farm. He owns and operates a rice farm and helps manage his father’s almond and walnut crops. During the growing season, Garcia flies a drone once a week – he has a Matrice 100 quadcopter – to monitor fields and look for signs of plant stress or weeds. He notes, “You don’t know what’s in the middle of the field – especially a rice field that’s under water.” Today, his drone is providing him that eye in the sky.

Of the imagery he gets from his drone, Garcia, who is also a certified pilot, says, “It’s like I went and rented a plane.” As examples of how he uses the drone, Garcia says he can zoom in and out and count the trees that need to be ordered for replanting. With the near infrared camera, he also uses the drone images to gain insight into plant health and plant stress. If weeds, insects or disease is noted, management practices of spraying can be implemented. He can also monitor fertilizer and soil nutrients like nitrogen, and says, “You can see a vein on the images.”

Presently, Garcia is focused on building an image database of his fields that provides a year-to-year field history. Working with the Chico-based company Ag One Solutions, Garcia says, “With my image database over the next three to four years, we eventually plan to be able to do variable rate applications of nitrogen – and even herbicides.”

Garcia explains that the drone images will help show where more or less applications are needed for the crop, which ultimately adds to efficiency of product use which reduces cost and is better for the environment. 

Garcia adds, “Right now we spray 100%. In the future, we can create on and off zones and may spray only 30-40%....Drone technology is helping make that possible.” 

With regard to working with drones, Garcia notes that there’s a bit of a learning curve, but overall it’s fairly easy. He uses an iPad tablet to program the drone and set the data points of the area to be mapped and surveyed. He sets the altitude and the drone does the rest. Garcia works with the software company Drone Deploy, a subscription service that handles information collected from UAV flights and produces images. Garcia reports that their software is compatible with any DJI system such as Matrice 100, Phantom or Inspire.

Garcia notes that drones are becoming more affordable. For those looking at the technology for the first time, he says some factors to consider when purchasing a drone are that it comes with a durable case, as well as the service and training that are offered by the company 

Lastly, Garcia underscores that drones are not a be-all, end-all. He concludes, “I don’t think drones will be the complete answer, you still have to foot traffic it in your fields, but using a drone definitely allows some better planning and efficiency.” 


Calving Helper

Near Baker, Oregon, Duane Chandler of Chandler Herefords is using a ground drone as an extra set of eyes in the calving pasture, and even to herd cattle. Chandler, who admits to being a “gearhead,” built the one-of-a-kind drone himself by modifying a Traxxas brand E-Revo remote control 4x4 and adding a video system to it. The unit has a front camera and a back camera.

With a calving pasture near his house, Chandler can send the drone out to the pasture to monitor the calving herd within a half mile range. Because the system is electric, it makes no noise to disturb the cattle, and he can view the images on-screen in the house.

If a cow is calving, Chandler can have the drone loiter in the area and keep an eye on her to monitor if the calf arrives in due time, or if assistance will be needed. Chandler says cattle do notice the ground drone, but they’ve gotten used to it.

Their Hereford operation includes 600 mother cows – about half registered and half commercial – with about 500 head calving in March and April and the balance calving in the fall.

Of his ground drone, Chandler says, “It does fine, there’s no terrain it can’t handle.” He notes there can be a lot of mud, which requires he just cleans it up some and makes sure the camera lens is clear between runs. The battery in the unit remains charged for three days.

The ground drone isn’t Chandler’s only set of eyes. Chandler, 45, says he started dabbling with remote control planes 15 years ago, and he has modified a remote control airplane with a video camera to look over the ranch and check their irrigation system. 

For others interested in rigging up their own systems, Chandler notes it takes some tweaking to ensure the frequencies for the vehicle and camera won’t interfere with one another. He presently uses a 433 MHz system for the remote system and a 900 MHz frequency to broadcast the images. A patch antenna in the yard helps make it all work.

Chandler says he has not used the quadcopter drones because of their short flight times, which would not be suitable for the ground he is trying to cover or if he needs the unit to loiter and wait for a cow to calve.

All told, Chandler is using his systems to provide some extra help on the ranch – and have some fun, while doing it. He tells that their calving pasture is near a busy highway, and he’ll often have people tell him, “There’s a badger or something out in that field.” Chandler says with a chuckle, “I have to explain often that it’s just a ground drone.”

Chandler has a YouTube channel and has three videos with more information about his ground drone at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqrBscjZsEFyddO__19pgHf9pTSGpHRVU


More Ideas

Scott Gregory with Ag One Solutions in Chico, California, gets to work with and see drones used for a variety of agricultural applications every day. Gregory is an FAA-Certified drone operator, and offers a crop and rangeland mapping service using drones in conjunction with some very sophisticated analytical software, including Esri GIS, photo stitching software. For others starting to explore the use of drones he says, “It’s important to understand that drones are just the conveyance to carry the sensors. I make an analogy that drones and sensors are like tractors and implements.”

To that end, Gregory explains that sensors are the tools that producers need to match to what they are trying to accomplish. Different sensors include near infrared sensors, multi-spectral sensors or full color cameras. Thermal infrared sensors that show heat are also coming of age.

Based on the different sensors, the images produced can then show vegetation and alert producers to plant stress or nutrient loss – even before it is visible to the human eye.

As examples of applications, Gregory says when vegetation stress becomes visible, nutrient or chemical applications may be necessary; thermal images may be used for irrigation management, to detect broken irrigation lines underground, or to detect animal illness in a herd or feedlot setting. He says some ranchers use drones in the high country like a periscope – sending it straight up 400 feet to give an image and scout for animals in rugged country. “That can save a lot of time,” he notes.

Gregory also notes that drones are not a silver bullet to solve all problems, but he says, “They are another tool in the toolbox. It’s not going to replace a horse or quad on the range, but if you find a few extra cattle when you are rounding them up in the high country, it will pay for the drone.”

In offering advice to those making a drone purchase, Gregorgy says two important factors to consider include: 1) size of the acreage you plan to fly and 2) the type of weather. He notes that drones can’t fly in rain, but he says in an area with a lot of wind, a hobby-level drone won’t hold up. If you need to scout a lot of acres with a longer flight time, a more expensive drone may be needed.


The Future

With FAA rules recently finalized for drones, it’s likely their use will increase in the near future. Drone use no longer requires that a pilot fly the machines – and you can hire out the work. FAA has lifted the restriction on hiring a consultant to gather information. This will allow crop scouts and other specialists to get into the act of gathering data for land owners. But one rule that hasn’t changed is that drones must be kept under 400 feet and must be visible by the operator.

Some experts suggest that for first-time drone users buying an inexpensive drone with a camera on it for $100-200 may be a good way to get started and learn to operate it, before in investing in a more expensive unit.