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Drones becoming effective farming tool

If you would have seen one of these contraptions in the sky 10 years ago, you would have thought a flying saucer was chasing you.

5/09/17 (Tue)

If you would have seen one of these contraptions in the sky 10 years ago, you would have thought a flying saucer was chasing you.

And some might still think so. Instead, they’re drones that are being used for everything from dropping bombs in Afghanistan to putting surveillance on the Canadian border to delivering packages.

Agriculture has now tapped into the unlimited resources drones have to offer and one Kenmare area producer is taking full advantage.

Trevor Melin is a farmer/rancher who purchased his drone in March to keep a close eye on pregnant cows as well as the new calves after they were born.

Melin says it saves him a lot of time when checking cattle and other than the sound of the propellers, there isn’t any sound so it doesn’t spook the livestock.

This month, Melin is using the drone to check for wet ground in the farm fields so he can plan his seeding accordingly.

Later this summer, he intends to use it to find out when crops are flowering so there is no longer a need to walk the fields like so many producers have done in the past.

The entire gamut of what Melin does with his drone, is operated through an app on his mobile phone.

One of the keys to making this beneficial for agriculture is that farmers are now capable of determining their own precision agriculture, that is realizing the optimum time to apply insecticide, herbicide or fertilizer.

Drone footage can also tell producers when it’s time to begin harvest. In fact, Melin plans to use his to follow the combine.

Melin’s drone is a DJI Phantom 4 that costs $1,200. He says it’s a good model for what he is doing. It’s white, weighs about 3 pounds with the battery attached, has a rotating camera and four propellers take it airborne.

The aircraft operates on a battery that will last 30 minutes and can uplink to up to 16 satellites. Melin has a second battery and a charger and uses it the same way a carpenter would use a spare battery on an electric drill.

It keeps track of height and distance through GPS and after a take-off grid coordinate is set, according to Melin, the drone will return to that precise location. The operator can either watch the coordinates on the cellular screen, or a “home” button may be pushed, which automatically returns it to the launch pad.

“It can go out three miles, but we’re supposed to keep it in the line of sight,” Melin said. “The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is critical of the line of sight and it can rise a maximum of 400 feet.”

Since getting his drone, Melin has been searching the Internet and reading as much as he can to learn how to make it as efficient as possible.

It’s not a toy, but is becoming an essential tool in farming. A recent USA Today article stated every farmer will have a drone in 10 years.

Dirk Monson isn’t a farmer, but is employed at Red River Communications in Abercrombie and owns a drone.

Monson, who grew up Minot and now lives in Galchutt, has been involved in technology since he was in high school.

He uses his drone mostly for recreation purposes, such as filming a baseball game in Wyndmere or getting overhead photos of people fishing on the Red River.

He admits drones are benefitting agriculture and says they have been popping up on farms here and there in the Red River Valley.

“I’ve been seeing some farmers use them around here for checking field conditions,” Monson said. “Because of the soil and its often wet conditions here, it’s not always practical to drive into a field. The drone is allowing farmers to check on maturation of crops while being planted on firm ground. I’ve always heard of a few cattle ranchers using it to check fence lines.”

Monson added drones are allowing farmers to control their own destiny when it comes to input costs.

“I personally think they have changed the game for precision agriculture,” he said. “This is technology that, for under $1,000, is essentially giving farmers their own imaging satellite. Previously, producers would have to subscribe to a service to receive such aerial shots. Now, they can power up their drone and get data immediately.”

So what’s the downside of using a drone on a North Dakota farm?

Wind! A drone in flight during a strong wind can destroy the aircraft so operators need to be savvy about wind conditions while attempting to fly it.

Another point to consider if purchasing a drone, according to Melin, is registration with the FAA and there are some restrictions on flight to protect other aircraft that might be in the sky nearby.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group that represents producers and users of drones and other robotic equipment, predicts that 80 percent of the commercial market for drones will eventually be for agricultural uses.

Once the Federal Aviation Administration establishes guidelines for commercial use, the drone industry expects more than 100,000 jobs to be created nationwide and nearly half a billion in tax revenue to be generated collectively by 2025, much of it from agriculture.

Monson, who has had his drone a couple of years, understands the value of what he has and says the applications are endless, many of which he will experiment.

Melin’s use will be more focused, but he knows this is cutting edge for agriculture over the long term.

“There’s good stuff to read on the Web about drones,” Melin said. “And it’s so simple to use.” ... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!