drone pilot industryFor Virginia Farmers, Drones Could be the Future of Agriculture

December 4, 2021by helo-10
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For small, minority-owned and low-resource farmers throughout Virginia, a new type of farming equipment is on the horizon. With the help of the Small Farms Outreach Program, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles – more commonly known as drones – in the fields is becoming less elusive.

The SFOP, run through the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University, is specifically designed to lend a helping hand for minorities and underserved farmers. With workshops and other resources, the program teaches those limited-resource farmers how to own and operate their farms independently, and keeps them up to date on the latest innovations in the industry.

Leonel Castillo, the Hispanic Outreach program assistant for the SFOP and a UAS-FAA certified drone pilot, has been leading a series of workshops about how drones can be used to get a clearer understanding of what’s going on in the fields so farmers can work as efficiently as possible.

Farmers can use drones to get a scan of their land from above and then upload that photography to a program like “Drone Deploy” which will interpret it for them, creating a map that will show them exactly what is going on in their farm. Those applications can take what was just a photograph of the field, and interpret it to detect pests or soil conditions, and show the farmers what they need to change exactly where they need to change it.

This is all part of what’s called “precision agriculture,” a method that encourages the use of technology to gain a more precise understanding of what’s going on in their fields, looking at it as data rather than trying to understand it on their own.

For example, instead of applying fertilizer to all areas of the crop uniformly and hoping to have good results, farmers can look at data to find out where the plants need it, and not waste the time or money on the areas of the field that don’t.

While it seems high-tech and futuristic, the technology is more accessible for small farms than it seems – in fact, the SFOP can provide access to it for free.

“Farmers who are interested in improving their efficiency and lowering their unit costs have access to our services and can practically learn as we learn more and more each day,” Castillo says. “The exposure to this technology offered by the VSU-SFOP can eventually lead the farmers to purchase their own drones or make better use of any drone they may already own.”

The technology doesn’t stop at photography and mapping; also on the market are specialized spray drones, which are able to actually apply pesticides, fertilizers, or weed control sprays right from the drone. While the SFOP does not have access to one of those drones now, they are working to get one soon, according to Castillo.

As with any new technology, it’s easy to wonder if this advancement might be taking jobs away from farmers, but according to Castillo, the technology is not replacing farmers–rather, it’s helping them do their jobs more effectively. This technology is not limitless, and cannot entirely replace a farmer – limitations on drone use by the FAA even notes that the pilot of a drone must be within eyeshot of their aircraft at all times. The benefits of precision agriculture, in tandem with the increased availability of the technology, means that drones can serve as a useful tool for the farmers who need it.

“The use of drones for precision agriculture and [increased] efficiency will only make better use of the farmer’s labor force to increase productivity or reduce operational costs,” Castillo said.

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There is more to being a drone pilot than just buying a machine and flying in your backyard. It can be that simple, but most of us will need to understand some drone laws before we try to take to the sky.

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