Seeing drones in the field has become a more common sight, and what they can do continues to expand.
“It’s not just with fungicide and that type of stuff,” said Ron Roling, an AgriGold agronomist in eastern Iowa. “A lot of growers are starting to do cover crop seeding and other things like that.”
But the appeal of using drones for spraying remains one of the strongest pulls to try the technology.
Spraying has been a primary use for many drone companies as the equipment allows more targeted applications for portions of an affected field compared to making an entire pass on the ground, Roling said. The ability to pick and choose where an input is going is helpful for those looking to save some money on applications and also reduce the chance of chemical drift and excess product running off the soil.
Roling said continued advancement in drone technology may be of particular interest to smaller farmers who may not want to spend money on a big sprayer but could afford the smaller scale of a drone. The drone could also open up some custom spraying as an added revenue source for those farmers.
“We’ve done drone trials for a couple of years now, and since then I know some farmers that have bought their own drone,” he said.
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Drone demand has grown due to the specialization these machines can provide. That makes them viable for smaller farms.
“Ground machines aren’t meant to do half-acre applications, but drones are suited for them due to the size of the equipment and their tank size,” Etsinger said. “There are field sizes that make sense for a ground machine, so it’s about using the tool that makes the most sense for the job.”
Roling said he notices the biggest change in field trials. Drones allow for farmers and companies to conduct more trials, as spraying of different products is less time consuming.
“If we have a grower that uses a certain hybrid in 30% of his acres but would respond a lot better to a fungicide than the other hybrid would, they likely would want to just spray those acres,” he said. “Or in a situation I’ve seen where there is burcucumber in just a part of the field, it means you won’t need to make an entire pass.”
While corn fungicide spraying won’t start until after tasseling in many cases, Roling said his company is starting to plan now for its plots. The ability to use drones on its test fields allows them to stay closer to schedule if a rain comes.
“A lot of people are looking for a good option,” he said. “Mother Nature plays a big part of any spring application. If the ground gets wet and we can’t get in the field, that’s where drones can give more flexibility. Especially with the ease of them. They are much easier than flying an airplane or helicopter. They give a lot more options in timing and trial options.”
Roling said the level of training needed for drone operation may vary based on the size of equipment being used, but there are often local options available.
“I think we are going to continue to find uses for drones whenever possible,” he said. “I think the cost will get better and there are a lot of positives.”