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The next evolution in agriculture: ND agriculture commissioner says 'unlimited potential' in use of UAVs on farms

Stock Photo An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flies over farmland in this undated image. The North Dakota agriculture commissioner says UAVs may be used in the near future on North Dakota farms.

North Dakota has long been known to those living on the more populated U.S. coasts as being in the middle of “flyover country,” but the state could soon give a brand-new meaning to the moniker.

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Speaking for the first time publicly on the topic, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles could eventually change the way growers approach the business of farming — and he said the shift could come sooner rather than later.

“In the last five years, ever since I’ve stepped into office, I’ve been contacted by and worked with four different companies about UAVs and their potential,” said Goehring during an interview earlier this month. “The use of UAVs is being discussed on many different scales. There is unlimited potential. About four or five times per year, we’re coming back and revisiting these things and visiting with different companies about technologies and applications.”

Though drones are already being used by some farmers, mostly to monitor their acreage, Goehring said UAVs could be on the verge of being used on a wider scale for advanced disease detection, pest mitigation, crop mapping and to develop complex algorithms, all in an effort to maximize yields and improve productivity.

“It’s fascinating,” Goehring said. “There are only a few (companies) who have been able to take it a step further and develop the algorithms for this type of mapping to take place. It’s just unbelievable. I’m excited about the possibilities.”

For example, Goehring said, many people don’t know that corn has the genetic potential to produce 600 bushels per acre or that soybeans have the potential to produce 200 bushels per acre.

“There are so many variables that can affect a crop’s ability to produce to its potential,” Goehring said. “Some of it is not in our control, but some are and our ability to micro-manage a crop can squeeze more and more yield out of a crop and help us to manage resources better. People sometimes over-apply and, with UAVs, it gives you the ability to go over a field with light refractivity and, with an optical signature, start to identify the different types of weeds in order to identify what type of herbicide to use and how much to use.”

North Dakota Farmers Union staff executive director Dane Braun said the use of drones will offer advantages to growers and ranchers alike.

“Farmers will be able to take imagery of crops to detect nutrient deficiencies and diseases,” Braun stated. “Ranchers will be able to take imagery of their livestock to check on their well-being and location. Most people think this is futuristic, but we think it is coming sooner than most people expect. Originally, we believed that drone experts would be coming out to the farmers’ fields to operate the drones, but now we think farmers and ranchers will be able to manage drones themselves.”

Though the technology and expertise could soon be there on a large scale, Braun said there is concern about federal regulations in the area of UAVs being used in agriculture.

“Our biggest challenge is the Federal Aviation Administration,” Braun said. “The FAA has not set policy on UAVs and has prevented commercial use of them at this time.”

The commercial use of drones has been a hot topic of conversation nationally, however, as Internet retail giant recently announced plans to eventually use UAVs to deliver packages. A recent Associated Press story also pointed to experts’ view that the ag industry could actually be the “most promising” commercial market for UAVs.

“This is going to make us much more efficient and much more effective,” Goehring said. “It’s going to start first with high-value crops, but it will get to a point where it will be applicable to other crops, such as the lower-value crops. This will help us move forward and help us produce more for our country and enhance food security, but will also address things like food safety.

“Beyond that, the use of UAVs will also enhance economic activity by allowing us to produce even more of a surplus, which we can then move into the global market.”

Goehring added that he has met with one company that is actually looking at doing modeling for the use of drones in the practice of crop adjusting.

“That is amazing,” Goehring said. “I met with the company and they showed me a presentation that illustrated how accurate they could be. They put people on the ground afterward to check their work, and over and over again it was replicated. It was utterly amazing. We have 20,000 crop adjusters in the U.S. — companies would be looking at the use of UAVs as an ability to do much of the heavy-lifting.

“You’ll still like need a warm body to do some things, but we could really expedite the process of claims and adjustment work for crop insurance. This is limitless.”

North Dakota Farm Bureau President Doyle Johannes said he’s not ready to make the statement that the use of drones will revolutionize farming, but he said the possibilities are exciting, though he’s also heard from some farmers who are not sold on the use of drones.

“This is certainly going to be a key to help make us more efficient,” Johannes said. “Instead of the mass treatment of an entire area, this is going to allow us to be more targeted in the application of things like fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. This is going to be a real tool to help.

“I think the real revolution is going to be the genetics of some of these crops. Some of the talk I’ve heard has actually been pretty negative because of what drones could be used for and the spying aspect that they could bring.”

On the heels of the recent controversy in America over the perception by some that the country’s ability to spy on citizens has been exposed as intrusive, Johannes said some farmers worry a drone in the wrong hands could cause major problems for growers and ranchers.

Capitalizing on the technology for the first time in 2013, Johannes said with the use of satellite imagery in the practice of variable-rate planting with corn, he’s seen about a 15 percent increase in yield from certain crops just from knowing where to plant and where to apply.

With UAVs potentially having the ability to aid crops, from potatoes to sugar beets, in a multitude of ways — from monitoring irrigation to fending off pesky birds from fields to identifying certain types of fungi and diseases using optical signatures — Goehring said the future is closer than many may think.

“Some of this is being done now, but much of it will be done in the next year,” Goehring said. “We’re right on the cusp of a lot right now. We’re entering into the next evolution in agriculture. It’s technology-driven with UAV mapping and gene technology. It’s exciting.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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