Purdue Extension helping Indiana farmers reach new heights with UAV demonstrations

Throughout Indiana, Purdue Extension helps agricultural communities understand UAV-related topics

Unmanned aerial vehicles – better known as UAVs or drones – are transforming agriculture by providing farmers with a highly effective, cost-efficient tool to monitor soil and crop conditions. But like any new technology, the multi-rotor vehicles with onboard cameras can initially be as intimidating as they are impressive.

Unmanned aerial vehicles – better known as UAVs or drones – are transforming agriculture by providing farmers with a highly effective, cost-efficient tool to monitor soil and crop conditions. But like any new technology, the multi-rotor vehicles with onboard cameras can initially be as intimidating as they are impressive.

“This is perhaps the biggest innovation in agricultural technology I’ve seen,” said Bob Nielsen, Purdue Extension corn specialist for 36 years, as he guides a white UAV about the size of a toaster oven over the fields at Purdue’s Agronomy Center for Research and Education in West Lafayette. “The possibilities for data collection are tremendous.”

“But of course,” he adds, toggling the hand-held joystick that controls the vehicle and banking it into a gentle glide, “there is a learning curve.”

Purdue Extension flying drone

To help Hoosier farmers take full advantage of the promising new UAV technology, Purdue Extension hosted a series of demonstrations throughout the state. Participants received hands-on, practical instruction in flight techniques and learned how to download and process the immense amount of data the drones can collect.

The demonstrations were led by Purdue faculty and Extension specialists, as well as Extension educators and staff from Purdue agricultural research centers throughout the state.

“A vital part of our Purdue Extension mission is to research new agricultural technologies and help farmers develop best practices to use those technologies to their greatest capabilities,” said Jason Henderson, director of Purdue Extension. “Farmers have traditionally been early adapters of new technologies. Even in the early days of aviation, many farmers learned to fly and found a way to use those primitive aircraft to scout fields and spray crops.”

Mark Carter, Purdue Extension educator in Delaware County, said UAV imaging could be much more effective for farmers than satellite imaging. Typically, satellite passes are a subscription base service and results come weekly or bi-weekly. UAVs, however, can produce a continuous series of images to track changes in crop damage, drainage problems, nutrient deficiency and disease over time.

“These demonstrations will be a great opportunity for anyone in the ag community interested in this new technology to learn more about the most effective UAV systems and management practices for their own operations,” Carter said before the events.

During each session, presenters discussed a number of UAV-related topics, including FAA regulations for flying on farms, vehicle selection and a survey of available technology for flight planning and mapping.

Many analysts believe the data revolution in farming – made possible by the advent of sophisticated sensing and internet technologies collectively known as “digital agriculture” – can help producers cut costs and boost yields, at a critical time when a growing worldwide population and climate change are posing severe tests for the global food supply.

“The exciting thing about UAVs is that they multiply a farmer’s ability to collect data on everything from water use to nitrogen deficiency,” Carter said. “But the challenge is to effectively collect and process that data so the results are meaningful.”