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The farmer and the drone

Author: Kristy

 

North Dakota farmer Jim Reimers shows off one of the drones he uses to collect data on his family’s 30,000-acre farm.

There was a near-miss in the skies above Tallahassee recently. According to a Federal Aviation Administration official, an American Airlines regional jet nearly collided with a “small, remotely piloted aircraft” — a drone — cruising 2,300-feet above sea level.

Exactly who was flying the unmanned aircraft remains unknown, but drones are becoming increasingly common in U.S. skies. This week in North Dakota, the FAA began allowing tests of drones for agricultural purposes.

Congress has ordered the FAA to create new rules to safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace by 2015, but many of North Dakota’s farmers aren’t waiting for the FAA to act.

Jim Reimers’ family has been farming on the North Dakota prairie for five generations. Driving out to his family’s land northwest of Jamestown, the empty, vast spaces are striking. The sky and the field stretch as far as you can see.

“In the early 1890s is when my great grandfather came out and started farming in this area,” Reimers says. Today, the Reimers’ family farm stretches out over 30,000 acres.

That’s more than twice the size of Manhattan, and each growing season the Reimers walk a lot of it, looking for pests and checking the health of the crops.

“You don’t cover the whole field. You can’t,” Reimers says.

But knowing exactly what is going on inside each field is essential, and that’s where the drones come in.

It’s All About The Data

Catching a fungus early, documenting damage when cattle break into your fields, knowing which fields aren’t flourishing so you can write them off; all these decisions can make or break a growing season. Unmanned, semi-autonomous little airplanes promise to be able to do all of that.

So this year, Reimers and his brother invested about $20,000 in a couple of small drones to begin scanning their fields. These little drones weigh less than 10 pounds each. The Reimers can fly them remotely, or the drones can be programmed to fly themselves on a grid to map and image an entire field.

The drones collect huge amounts of data, and modern farming is a data-driven business. “[That’s] my role on the farm; that is all I do,” Reimers says.

Like a software programmer or Web developer, Reimers runs an endless series of tests on his land, altering things like crop density, fertilizer and planting width. Modern, GPS-enabled farm equipment not only can drive itself, it’s accurate within inches and can adjust precisely how much fertilizer or pesticide to spray.

If farmers know exactly how each field is faring, they may spray less. For the Reimers family that could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings each year. It could increase their yield and margins while reducing stress on the land.

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