UD drone work covers two bases

Each week for the last several months, Dr. Jarrod Miller, University of Delaware Extension agronomist, has launched an unmanned aerial vehicle, more commonly known as a drone, skyward to map fields at the university’s Carvel Research and Education Center and on nearby farms.

“I fly everything I can because we’re just trying to figure out how to use it,” he said. “Anything we can do with it, we’re trying.”

Miller said he’s been working drones via Extension since 2015 but the bulk of the flying has been since September.

Jarrod Miller, preparing to launch one of his drones in flight, has been flying repeatedly over the research and commercial fields, gathering data on crop conditions. “The hardest part is getting this thing to land,” he said, as it was airborne. “I make sure I stay away from roads.”
Jarrod Miller, preparing to launch one of his drones in flight, has been flying repeatedly over the research and commercial fields, gathering data on crop conditions. “The hardest part is getting this thing to land,” he said, as it was airborne. “I make sure I stay away from roads.”

This year, he’s been visiting about 14 fields in research and commercial production gathering thousands of pictures with both fixed wing and copter-style drones, that are then digitally stitched together into single images of the field.

The repeated flights help Miller, who is trained and licensed to fly the drones, gather as much data as he can think of on crop conditions and also become familiar with the equipment’s capabilities and limitations with an eye on relaying the information to farmers and other would-be drone pilots.

With each flight, Miller makes an entry in a journal, keeping record of the drone’s use, performance in different weather factors and other variables.

Miller said he’ll use this data and flight experience to educate farmers on making decisions on using drones when they see a possible payback.

“That simple kind of information is what I appreciate, doing the preliminary experimenting so they don’t have to,” he said. “Part of our goal is learn the basics and tell people what we learned. Maybe they can figure out ways to use it better for their own operation.”

Though drones have been a part of the agricultural landscape for a few years, their widespread use remains on the horizon as ways to effectively use the data catches up with drone innovation.

Add to that, drone companies frequently getting bought by other firms or going out of business and vauge guesses on the equipment’s life expectancy, and Miller said it makes going all in on using a sophisticated drone very risky for a farmer.

“The technology is so new, there’s no reason to invest a lot of money it,” he said. “It’s always changing.”

Drone packages can cost in the tens of thousands, Miller said; too expensive for most farmers to consider.

The fixed-wing drone Miller uses cost about $4,500 with much of that price paying for the multispectral camera embedded in it. Along with standard digital images, the camera captures images in four wavebands: green, red, red edge and near infrared, getting different perspectives of the crops below.

The multi-spectral imagery goes toward Miller’s research objectives, building a bank of data that, with multiple years added to it, can aid in better crop management, seeing problems sooner as they develop in the field and taking action.

“You start to pick up when things occurred,” he said. “You can actually see some interesting patterns in there.”

It’s already been a huge time and labor saver in calculating stand counts and biomass levels in some row crops which is helpful in plant population studies and research on equipment calibration. Miller expects the data will help refine soil mapping and grid sampling methods.

“We don’t know all of what we can do yet so I just figure collect as much as possible and later we might figure out how to use it better,” Miller said.

Article and photo by Sean Clougherty

This article was originally published in the Delmarva Farmer.