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Drone a new tool in Kendall farmer's toolbox : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Drone a new tool in Kendall farmer's toolbox
Remote control aircraft provides live video of field, crop conditions

by Matt Schury


The plow, the tractor and the combine are major tools of any farmer's operation. Could the drone be next?

Kurt Schobert, who farms in Kendall County south of Yorkville, thinks so and he has taken steps to use the aircraft technology this summer and fall in his own field.

"We're using it as a tool, we have lots of tools in farming and we're going to use this as another tool in our toolbox," he said. "We can scout more efficiently and be able to see problems out in the field."

Schobert has taken classes in order to fly his DJI Phantom drone around his field. The drone gives him a bird's eye view of his field and he hopes will help him spot problems with his crops before they become widespread.

After reading about drones for agricultural use, he took a couple of classes on how to fly them and eventually bought his own craft.

"It's something that I'm learning about and playing around with on our farm and trying to see where the industry goes," he said.

He explains that he first read about using drones for agricultural uses late last fall and looked into it further. His drone has a GoPro camera mounted underneath it with a gimble to keep the shot steady.

"The cameras can shoot pictures back to you and let you know what's transpiring in your field," he said, adding that it will help farmers identify pests or disease in their crops before the problem gets too widespread.

Schobert's drone is about 18 inches wide by about 12 inches tall and uses four rotating propellers to lift it off the ground, fly around and hover in place.

"They take a little getting used to ... but it's remarkably easy," he said.

Schobert explained that the unmanned aircraft are similar to the smaller model helicopters sold at the mall.

"You have a lot more control but it's basically the same idea with a lot more technology," he said.

His drone has GPS built into it and knows where it is at all times.

"You can fly it in a 20 mile per hour wind and it will stay right where it needs to go," he said. "If it gets too far away from you and it breaks signal with your controller, it automatically comes back to you."

The drone streams back live video footage to the user from wherever they choose to pilot it remotely. He said the drones should be able to tell farmers where there is a problem without having to walk the field, something that comes in handy during the middle of the summer.

"There's nothing better than getting out in the field, but when the corn is tasseling in the middle of July and it's 100 degrees-no one wants to be out there," Schobert said.

It also gives farmers an idea of where they might need to concentrate their efforts without having to walk their entire field. For instance, an 80-acre field takes a farmer a couple of hours to walk efficiently, he adds.

"I can fly over the field in six minutes," Schobert said.

The battery-operated drone's charge lasts about 20 minutes. He said that he has a few batteries to switch but 20 minutes is more than enough time to fly the field.

Dan Reedy, manager of the Kendall County Farm Bureau, agrees with Schobert that drones are the future of farming.

"They're fairly new but for agricultural purposes they're great," Reedy said. "I assume in the next five years I think pretty much everyone might have one. Five to 10 years ago who would have thought (farmers) would have computers or self steering on their tractors."

Schobert said there is also technology that some agricultural drones have to measure the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). A drone can take a picture of a field and analyze crop growth with a color-coded map showing the NDVI of a field.

He pointed out that farmers use this kind of technology with satellites or with plane flyovers. It can be cloudy or the picture might not turn out for that day, but using the drones, Schobert says, a farmer can take a picture more often and from any point on the field.

"You can go up and base your fertilizer off of what you find from the sky," Schobert explained.

He added that he will be looking for things out of the ordinary. For instance gusty winds can blow a crop down in the center of the field and farmers can't always see that from the outside of the field.

"When you can find that stuff before you find it in the combine, it's much better to know about it before hand," Schobert said.

Another advantage to knowing more about crop conditions is knowing what type of insurance claims they may have to file in a season or what they may be coming upon while in their combine.

"In the fall when you are in (the combine) you know what's coming. You know you have a spot out there that's down and you can change to a different corn head, different corn reel," he said.

One thing Schobert is wary of is the word drone, which can carry a negative connotation.

"I try not to call it a drone," he said. "Normally we call them a UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) or a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). "It makes it a whole lot less scary. When you say drone the first thing that comes to mind is the government spying or dropping bombs."

However, he said that safety is always his first priority and he understands people's concerns. The aircraft are not regulated and anyone with a little training can fly them or they can be flown using GPS.

"People are going to have to be responsible with them otherwise it's going to be a problem for everybody," Schobert said. "I emphasize safety with this thing. We use it out in fields. I don't use it around people or houses."

He added that he keeps his drone at a height of about 350 feet, just below the 400-foot height the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates. Schobert said about 100 feet above the ground is a good height for inspecting crops.

"When you're up in the air, you get a whole different perspective of the field, than when you are looking at it at ground level-everything's green and everything looks good. But when you get up in the air, you can start to see patterns across the field and maybe you got a spot you need to look at more closely," he said.

FAA slated to implement
rules in September 2015

The rural landscape actually provides a great training ground because there aren't many buildings, trees and other obstacles around.

"If I've got a field that is up near houses, I'm probably just not going to fly it," he said.

He adds that the aircraft has a lot of fail-safes.

"I'm going to use it as a tool and use it responsibly," Schobert added.

When he first got his drone he had some trouble learning to land it.

"A couple times I was right up next to my house and I hit a tree," he said. "It was as I was learning, which is why you learn out in the country."

He said the FAA will make a decision on how to implement the drones for commercial use by September 2015. When a decision is made by the FAA on how to regulate commercial use of drones, Schobert hopes to use what he has learned to start a commercial service.

"I really see in the future most farmers are going to have something like this or utilize them on their farm," he said, adding that for now it is just a hobby that he uses on his own field.

"As soon as they figure out the rules and tell us the rules of what we have to do," he said. "I think there is a huge market when the time comes and I'm very excited about it."

He adds that he foresees the FAA requiring people flying this technology to get a type of pilot's license and have a basic understanding of air space.

He notes that GPS on combines is something that some farmers rejected at first.

"When GPS came out everyone said, 'I can steer my own combine or tractor, I don't need this stuff.' And now it's pretty much in every new tractor."

"I picture the UAF, the drones, to be the same," he mentioned. "Once all these rules get figured out, they're going to be mainstream, they're going to be that handy to have."

He adds that he believes that they will increase crop yields and allow farmers to use less fertilizer and herbicide and base what they are doing on in-field data they are collecting from these aircraft.

Schobert said that he is not aware of anyone else in Kendall County using drones for agricultural purposes but knows some farmers in Grundy and LaSalle Counties who use them.

This summer and fall will be the first harvest during which he will be using the drone.

"I'm basically still getting my feet wet here so I'm hoping to use it this summer and be up and looking out at fields," he said.

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