Gene Logsdon and Friends

Drone Groans

In Gene Logsdon Blog on February 5, 2014 at 7:36 am

dPhoto by Rory Paul

From GENE LOGSDON

How quickly business picks up on innovations that waft the odor of money into the air. The idea of using unmanned aircraft in agriculture has been so completely embraced that there are already experts out there warning farmers of possible shysters who will try to sell them the wrong drone for their operation. Good grief. There aren’t any proven right ones yet.

I am trying to imagine this innovation positively but it’s not easy. I can see, or almost see, drones delivering to our doorsteps all that stuff we are purchasing online. I suppose it will take some kind of receptacle next to the garage for the drone to deposit stuff into ($$$), or perhaps special bags or crates ($$$) that can be dropped gently on the lawn, in which case there will have to be some kind of safeguard ($$$) to keep thieves from stealing the packages. Maybe the drone will just hover over the roof and drop packages down the chimney.

But when it comes to using drones profitably in farming, my imagination puckers up. The sales pitch right now is that Big Data will need drones to collect unending reams of electronic information to help “you” farm better. There is an assumption here, I guess, that farms will be so vast that farmers will no longer have time to eyeball crops and animals from their pickups or leaning over the fence. Or perhaps Big Data assumes that farmers will disappear into the mist of history, their work taken over by robots. I was sort of amused by a quote in the news attributed to Matt Bechdohl, president of something called GeoSilos, speaking recently at the American Farm Bureau’s 95th annual convention: “I don’t like the term ‘precision agriculture’ especially if we aren’t doing anything precise with it. We are going to move to predictive and prescriptive agriculture. We’re going to move beyond precision agriculture with Big Data.” To do that, Bechdohl said, drones will play an increasing role, using a technique he called “fly and scan” to collect data for producers.

I’ll take a shot at some predictive agriculture myself. I predict that trying to use drones in farming will cause one of the biggest headaches human society has ever had to endure. A whole lot of us just aren’t going to take kindly to pieces of metal flying around our private sanctuaries like horse flies. Just as “precision” farming has fallen into disfavor, so will “predictive” and “prescriptive” farming. Big Data will not be able to deliver the predictions and prescriptions it promises any better than the grey matter between a farmer’s ears can deliver them. The latter costs not the outlay of one penny.

I remember all too well when predictive farming said there was going to be an airplane in every barn. One of my favorite true stories is about two farmers on the other side of our county who both got a plane and laid out an airstrip in their pastures. They would regularly fire up their winged beasts and fly down to visit each other just to pass the time of day.  As it turned out, an airplane in every barn was not practical or profitable. Just because something is mechanically or scientifically possible does not mean that it will become generally adopted.

And if I’m wrong, I’ll be long gone before it happens and you can laugh at me while you swat at all those drones buzzing around your ears.
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  1. I think you miss the real value of all these new technologies, using the data we collect to more precisely address the needs of crops. The drones take that one step further gathering in season data on crop progress rather than waiting for harvest data to plan for next season. The drones will really shine when spotting outbreaks of disease or new weeds. The scout can take that information and zero in on areas of the field rather that searching for trouble from the cab. Like all this stuff it will be underutilized by some, relied upon excessively by others but overall it’s going to provide a slick new tool for scouts on the leading edge. The best farms will still be those who take a holistic approach to farming, I think these folks are also getting the most from their data. I for one really look forward to seeing where this is going.

  2. I’m afraid that drones of any type for any purpose are viewed with a jaundiced eye around here. In fact, I doubt that any overflying my home would survive for long when the bird hunters got wind of it!

  3. I predict the coming use of drones, not just for agriculture but package delivery, ‘ homeland security’, etc. will spawn a whole new genre of hunting – drone shooting. It would certainly be as much fun as doves or skeet shooting. I can tell you that if I saw one of those things hovering over my property, my old .22 rabbit rifle would get a new purpose.

  4. Someone once said, I’m paraphrasing, the best manure is the farmers heel in his field. If “big data” can help us so much, why have so many big businesses failed and why do insurance companies, with their predictive modeling, still turn out poor results from time to time? It seems to me that the compilation and use of all of this data will simply be used to sell us more products, most likely seeds that will do better in that swale or herbicides that will weaken that weed. Let’s leave some of the mystery in Mother Earth and her cycles.

  5. “there will have to be some kind of safeguard ($$$) to keep thieves from stealing the packages”
    How right you are, there is already such a safeguard being designed right now, a two stage anti-intrusion drone ($$$): When an unauthorized trespasser is detected, the drone will sound an alarm that goes “wah wah wah”. In the second stage, the drone will fly at the trespasser and bite at his legs.

    Drones are getting cheaper by the day, so it will probably happen. The real money of course is not in the drone hardware, but in the software and Big Data services, and the other hardware paraphernalia required. All that an infrared picture can show you is that a spot in the field is stressed, but it can’t tell if it’s from drought or a fungi without calibrating your field, this specific variety you’re growing, a whole battery of moisture sensors, etc.
    So I am guessing that for most farmers, they’ll just use the raw data to decide if this specific spot that may not be visible from the road needs manual scouting. Ideally you’ll need real color pictures too, so in the first years it will mean either 2 separate scoutings with two cameras, or one drone equipped with 2 cameras, until they invent a single camera that can take pictures in any given color range ($$$. ;)

    • chimel31, hey now you’re talking. A drone to chase coons and deer out of my sweetcorn. Gene

  6. All this talk of drones sounds a lot like what older people said when tractors first came into the picture thretening to replaces horses but the tractor proved itself and was accepted. Who’s to say that drones are going to be bad for the future? If used right they could be very helpful.

  7. Drones may very well be a boon to farmers, but when the energy that keeps industrial society humming is vanishing from underneath us, I can’t see how they’d be flying for long. For one thing, the rare-earth materials required in the batteries of drones are in short supply, and anyone with a cell phone knows these batteries don’t last particularly long. Those who get excited about drones or any other offerings from the Church of Technology should visit ourfiniteworld.com (some of the best energy analysis out there) and ponder the implications…

  8. I had hear the same story about the best fertilizer for any ground is the feet of the people that love it. I think it came from the same mentality that said one may judge the thrift, skill and efficiency of a farmer by the size of their manure pile in spring. I believe them both.

    Technology to the rescue again, displacing the usefulness of humans connecting to the earth. No doubt it is a massive money maker for someone, but I’m doubtful if that includes “farmers” or consumers of agricultural products (read everyone).

    Then this techno flying gizmo brings the privacy of air space to question. I understand the government owning the air over our land for the protection of the “public good”, but private companies and nosy individuals could provide a new sport for the shooters among us.

    I’ve even had innovative folks suggest that I place chips in my horses in order to train them to operate by remote control, like my voice doesn’t already work at that connection. I reject chips for identification (NAIS) and reset the implication that I don’t enjoy being in the middle of my cultural existence too. I remain determined to have my farming and forestry to include me, personally, physically and mentally.

  9. I considered building a drone and I still do. I approach this like any other tech… will it save me money? Will it save me time? If I can get a good look at my fences on a large acre property while I am drinking my coffee and enjoying breakfast, why not? A savvy person can program in a GPS route and mount a camera on a quad copter and have it fly low over the fence line looking for breaks. It flies automatically, one button to press: “go!”. With adequate signal coverage you watch the vid in real time or watch it when it comes back in range. A high frame rate can make up for a fast pass. The quad copter is a lot less to maintain then the wear and tear on a truck or a JD Gator.

  10. I wonder… will “Big Data” be as kind as Big Brother?

  11. as much as I love technology for all of it’s usefulness- if we begin relying on technology to completely monitor, track and record our farming methods and results, I don’t see this is as a resiliency-preserving choice. Let’s keep our hands in the dirt. Many of the monoculture crops I see the drone technolgy being applied towards are not even human food crops, as much as crap feeding the factory farm/”cheap” food system. I think it might be preaching to the choir, but “Grow your own, know your farmers, opt out by getting involved with what you eat.”
    The idea of a low-fi method of monitoring our turkeys over the evenings, such as a simple baby monitor, has come across my mind though! Good thoughts for the day, thanks!

  12. I can see this sort of technology, for better or worse, being incorporated into mega-farms managed by Big Ag and tied into some Monsanto-administered crop monitoring program. But, for the small farmer, I think those pesky horse flies Gene mentioned might actually be more useful in the long run.

  13. technology? These 6 million people who live like confinement animals eating processed corn and beans need to roll off the sofa and start a garden in the backyard. A little exercise and some real food and puff no more obamacare.

  14. I happen to have a drone of my own that I’ll be using on the farm beginning this growing season. I don’t think they’ll find their way in to every farm. I can foresee many of them be hired out through co-ops and fertilizer dealers.

    The important thing to remember with all this precision tech is that these are tools to be used in combination with boots on the ground and not as a replacement.

    Here’s a post on my experience so far. I’m excited to get out this summer to start scouting from the air. http://bit.ly/19ujNgB

  15. It looks like the Genie is out of the bottle, but please keep them on your own property! I sure hope there will be laws about keeping these things off others’ property–privacy rights etc.? I for one do not what cameras buzzing around my sanctuary.

  16. Seems like farming is splitting into two very opposite camps The first are the ones with the larger and larger operations that will use things like drones,high tech equipment etc and the other that are mostly small very low tech operations that’ll sell locally with less and less farmers in the middle.As odd as it may seem I’m betting the small guys will be left standing while the larger farms are in bankruptcy.In the 80’s it was the Big Boys with the new stuff that got sold out.

    • Gary, one thing I’ll bet on. Buying a drone will be a tax deductible expense. Gene

  17. Drones are an interesting idea but I think they would be just an expensive toy for me. Sort of an extension of google earth. Handy to look at the far end of my fields and crops or to find the cows out in the bushes in the pasture. But maybe a bit of walking and exercise is not a bad thing either.

    • I believe my little copter will lead to a lot more exercise for me since I’ll be able to see the entire field from a bird’s eye view I’m certain I’ll spot things I might have missed by just walking or standing on top of my truck. When I do I’ll be walking out to those spots to see if an action is warranted.

  18. Change is not bad! Change is inevitable and we must all continually adapt. That said, change for the sake of change is chaos.

    The idea that I was old and thus resistant to change is what catapulted me into retirement by my employer(I kiss the beloved ground of Persimmon Ridge for this every day). But there is a space between rejecting the new because it is new and revering what is hard earned and comes with many years of trial. There is a middle ground. Big Farms, keep your drones on your own land and I truly hope they serve you well. If I see one of these bastard horseflies on my property, I will shoot it down in the blink of an eye. Just saying’.

  19. OMG! Spare us, o lord.

  20. One important point for American farmers – the FAA has banned commercial use of drones until such time that regulations are available, and they’re increasingly cracking down on commercial use. Beware of folks trying to sell solutions, the FAA might just knock on your door if you try to use them. That said, there’s a nice loop hole for “hobbyists”, however you might want to interpret that…

  21. Gene how about crediting my picture…Its the Octane from Volt Aerial Robotics… just an fyi i have been at this long enough to know what a $400 toy painted green and yellow is not going to last the season.

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