Airborne Agriculture by Rexanna Powers


June 12, 2019 - Imagine for a moment a world where agriculture goes aerial. A world where the American cowboy is so technologically savvy that he no longer has to saddle his horse before dawn to ride out and check his herd of cattle. Picture a farmer making his morning cup of joe, sitting down at his table to read the newspaper, and sending a drone via his smartphone to check his livestock – all without leaving the comfort of his kitchen or his bunny slippers. This is the world we live in. The farmer can simply send a drone to capture a thermal, aerial image of his herd and have that image on his smartphone in a matter of minutes. It may sound like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but dairy farmers have already started putting activity trackers, similar to a “Fitbit”, on the legs of their cows to monitor activity levels, so maybe using drones to check for cattle in heat isn’t so far-fetched.

Thermal imaging has increased in popularity in recent years. Drones with thermal cameras are most commonly used for inspecting HVAC units, wind turbines, cell towers, roofs, for finding missing people, and most recently used to hunt feral hogs at night. However, thermal imaging and high definition cameras can now allow farmers to track and monitor their livestock remotely, identify any issues in real time, therefore enabling them to resolve issues quickly and efficiently.

Drones can be employed to monitor livestock, assess crop health, assess drought conditions, and even to apply pesticides. According to many drone suppliers, the key is to have the right drone accessories for the job that you intend to carry out. For example, a high definition camera will provide clear, concise footage, while thermal imaging software will allow you to pick up areas of heat across your crops and livestock.

Any rancher will tell you that tracking, inspecting, and monitoring livestock across a large pasture or rangeland area presents challenges - mainly relating to time and efficiency. Here in East Texas, it can be difficult to locate cattle on a hot summer day, especially when the cattle have taken up residency in a cool spot deep in the woods. It is more common for farmers to use GPS to track their stock, but they are still required to physically go to the animal to inspect it, so this method isn’t as efficient as it could be, particularly in heavily wooded or large areas.

According to Pete Cunningham of Cunningham Ag Services in Ansley, Nebraska, the capability has existed for specialized ear tags for cattle to help improve traceability, measure biometrics and behavior of animals, verify if an animal was treated for disease and the outcome, and determine if the animal was treated humanely or mistreated. Further, wireless cameras with long-range capabilities can notify a producer via cell phone that a cow has calved or even that someone has pulled onto the property.

The implementation of technology in production agriculture practices is not surprising. Sure, there are kinks in the transition, but farming drones could provide one of the most efficient ways for farmers to monitor their livestock and crops. By improving efficiency, we are ultimately improving sustainability and that is something to think about.

Most drone companies have customizable equipment that meet a variety of needs so incorporating this technology into your management plan may not be out of the question. Drones work by way of several propellers which lift them into the air, with the height, speed, and direction being controlled by an operative on the ground via remote control. The sensors used in drone technology can change how we manage and identify sick and under-performing cattle much sooner than a pen rider or by horseback in a pasture.

The talk of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV, or drones) in agriculture has been circulated since February of 2015. Since then, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun defining the rules for proper, safe public and commercial use of UAV in the United States. Farmers employing UAV technology currently fall under recreational rather than commercial rules. The general requirements are that you need to operate under 400 feet, stay away from airports and piloted aircraft, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and always have your UAV in sight. That being said, there is a lot of agricultural potential in the UAV market.

Are we ready for this kind of technology? Some may even call it an invasion, but should we consider implementing more technology into agriculture? If a farmer or feedlot has 1,000 head of cattle and only two are showing signs of sickness, the drone technology coupled with thermal imaging not only identifies those specific cattle but allows for the handling and treatment of two cattle and leaving the other 998 alone. Managing cattle on a head by head basis eliminates the scuffle of sorting through a whole herd, which is not only more efficient, but puts the cost management structure back into the hands of the producer.

This technology may not be necessary for the family farm, but regardless of the size of your operation, the implementation of technology of any kind will save you time. Technology might be daunting and seemingly unnecessary, and in some cases that is true, but it is increasingly important for the agriculture industry to become more efficient and sustainable. It is estimated that by the year 2025, the American agriculture industry will be responsible for feeding roughly 8 billion people. Whether you raise cattle or crops for food or just for fun, you are part of an industry that feeds a world full of people. The use of technology in agriculture is not just a conversation or fleeting thought anymore – it’s the near future. With so much advancement in our industry in recent years, how can we not believe in the future of the American farmer? To learn more about the steps to use UAV technology in agriculture, visit https://ehs.tamu.edu.