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Diving Into Drones

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Until recently, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, were primarily viewed as either a “cool toy” or the “latest and greatest” piece of technology only owned by the largest and most cutting-edge farms.

As the technology has become more accessible, drones can now be considered a practical business tool for all growers, including hay and forage producers.

Drones can, in a single flight, monitor crop health over hundreds or even thousands of acres. As a result, they’re enabling hay and forage professionals to spend less time on manual scouting and reacting to problems and more time proactively addressing field needs before major issues arise.

While UAS technology is appealing, many are wary because they feel they lack the skills to use one effectively in their business. Before making the leap into drone ownership, every grower should consider the following key areas: cost, regulations and personnel.

Cost considerations
There are several options for low-cost drones purchased from big-box retailers. While the low price tag may be attractive, these units are designed for recreational rather than professional use.

Software, high-quality cameras with the option to measure different bands of light, ease of use and overall durability often aren’t part of the package.

On the other hand, drones engineered for professional use are equipped with nearly everything needed to begin using them in a farming operation out-of-the-box. These units are engineered well, include flight-planning and image-processing software and often have great warranties and optional insurance plans.

When purchased at a reputable dealership, they also likely come with service and training from a knowledgeable product expert.

Flight safety should always be a priority, and it also helps to protect the investment. It’s important to consider personal safety, the safety of others that might be in the vicinity and the safety of the equipment.

Respect to regulations
Going hand-in-hand with safety, regulations are a significant part of UAS operations. Anyone who has paid attention to drones in the media has heard about the regulations that come with ownership. Because drones are classified as an aircraft, federal regulations set the requirements all operators must follow.

To be brought up to speed, take a look at the resources available from the FAA and RDOIC.

Proper personnel
The final consideration regarding UAS ownership is one often overlooked: personnel. This doesn’t necessarily mean adding more people to a team but could mean developing the right person or people to make it successful.

In order to achieve the maximum benefit of the technology, it’s essential that someone have the resources needed to learn to operate and manage the technology for a business.

All decision-makers should ask themselves the following questions prior to a drone purchase.

First: “Do I have the capability to manage this process myself?

  • If that answer is no: “Can one of my existing employees take ownership of this?
  • If you’re still unsure, the question may be: “Do I need to hire an expert or someone who can be trained to be an expert?”

From research to reward
No longer reserved for an elite group of professionals, UAS ownership can be a practical and smart move for all growers. While it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and surging popularity of these units, a tactical and thorough evaluation is still a must when deciding if drone ownership is the right decision for your business. 

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Nate Dorsey is an agronomist with RDO Equipment Co.

With additional contribution from Matt Hayes, mapping/UAV product supervisor, and Bill Edmonson, UAV product specialist, both for RDO Integrated Controls and based in Billings, Montana.

To read the entire article, recently featured in Progressive Forageclick here.

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