The scenario could happen on any farm.

Perhaps it is aphids overtaking a soybean field. Or some part of the corn crop needs more fertilizer. Maybe there is an area in your field that needs spraying for weeds or has a fungus developing that you can’t see from the fence line.

A farmer could walk every row. But that takes time. Unless, that is, you have a bird’s-eye view from the sky.

That’s what unmanned aircraft systems could do for farms, said Tom Nichol as he gave a tour of the fledgling precision agriculture company he works for in Neodesha where these aircraft are being constructed in assembly-line fashion.

Unmanned systems, he said, are capable of flying over fields and collecting data and photos, which on a nearby laptop will show differences in the landscape that the human eye might not normally see.

Moreover, farmers won’t necessarily have to spray an entire field to take care of a problem, which saves time and money, he added.

And across the rural landscape of Kansas, Nichol only sees growth in this start-up industry, a tool farmers can use to improve profits and yields in an effort to feed a projected 9 billion people in 35 years.

“It saves the farmer, it saves impact on the environment – all because a little 6.5-pound aircraft was able to take some useful photos,” said Nichol, who is in charge of business development for AgEagle. “Some people think of them as evil and bad. Here is one that can have a huge impact – billions of dollars in new jobs and, most importantly, it could grow agriculture.”

Big industry

Industry devotion is evident from the incubator building off Neodesha’s Main Street. A few years ago, former aircraft employee and model plane enthusiast Bret Chilcott, who grew up on a farm near Udall, decided to use the skills he knew best and began developing a product tailored exclusively for agriculture.

Since Jan. 1, his company, AgEagle, has shipped 125 unmanned aircraft systems to customers across the United States, as well as parts of the globe, Chilcott said.

He calls his company a pioneer in the industry. “We’re actually on the ground floor,” he said.

So ground-floor, in fact, they are among a small group of “early adopters” who are trying to spearhead the unmanned systems forward into the 21st century.

“Bear in mind that this single-person unmanned aircraft image gathering and processing technology is less than two years old,” Nichol said. “So while there is a huge amount of interest, there are only a couple of dozen fliers in Kansas. Everyone involved is in precision ag and are more progressive in their approach to farming than most – intellectuals with dirt under their fingernails.”

Soaring tool

Sure, the word “drone,” as some commonly call unmanned systems, conjures up negative connotations – a device used for military spying and attacking terrorists. However, Chilcott, Nichol and other proponents see it as the next big precision ag tool since yield monitors and auto steer – a device to help farmers get the most production off a field.

Using near-infrared technology, the aircraft will allow farmers to map out fields using imagery to detect how a crop is growing. Areas pictured in green show a healthy crop, while darker, redder areas show plant stress, depending on the season the photos are taken. Stress could be from many things – less nitrogen in the soil, pest infestation and disease breakouts, among others.

Instead of spraying the entire crop, farmers can pinpoint troubled areas and treat them accordingly.

In fact, the technology could be the state’s next big area of growth. Joel Anderson, development director at Kansas State University who is charged with helping grow the industry, said the Association of Unmanned Aerial Systems International released an economic report showing Kansas ranked No. 7 in the United States for the potential to reap the benefits of unmanned systems.

The group estimated the state’s potential economic growth at $2.9 billion, which could generate 3,716 new jobs, he said.

“The $2.9 billion is an understatement if Kansas can get its collective act together to pursue the economic job growth,” Anderson said. “From a technology development standpoint, let’s maximize the true benefit for the state of Kansas.”

Waiting on rules

However, Federal Aviation Administration rules for flying unmanned aircraft systems are tricky.

Elizabeth Cory, with the FAA, said the administration does not permit commercial drone use at this time – and that includes farmers using drones for commercial agricultural production. However, flying for a hobby or recreation does not necessarily require FAA approval.

The FAA, however, could set guidelines on drones as soon as September 2015, said Nichol.

While the FAA’s revision of the rule is still a year away, work is still being done and money invested in the up-and-coming precision tool. Besides AgEagle, several Kansas companies are jumping into the drone market, preparing for the day something changes. 

Meanwhile, as unmanned systems gather countless data, systems and farm tools also need to be ramped up to be able to use the precise data offered by the UAS industry, said Logan Hurlbut, an engineer with the South Hutchinson company Shield Agricultural Equipment. The ag manufacturer is working on end products like fertilizer knives that will apply nutrients using sensors and other devices in pinpointed locations.

“We are working on the end products that will use the data provided by unmanned systems,” Hurlbut said. “It saves money if they put the right amount in the right place.”

Other end-user technology is in the planning stages, Nichol noted. He expects that, in the next three to five years, spray rigs will have the capability to apply products in precise locations. An image map from a UAS would be converted in the “prescription map that would be inserted into the field applicator. The field applicator would have the sensors that would tell you the exact location to squirt here,” he said.

Future for farmers

Back on the farm in Saline County, Zach Short sees the potential for unmanned systems on his family operation. The 24-year-old Assaria farmer grew up flying aerial planes and a year ago decided to buy an inexpensive Blade QX Quadcopter with a GoPro camera.

About the time he purchased it, he took a K-State class at a Salina farm show on the potential for unmanned aircraft. Instructors noted that besides crops, producers could use them to count cattle and some systems can even show whether cows have been impregnated, he said. Producers could also check their pond levels, all the while not using fuel and miles on the farm pickup.

However, right now, the only thing Short can use his aircraft for is fun, which he hasn’t had time to do this summer amid a busy season.

“I think it is a good tool for precision ag,” he said. “I think they can do good. Some people are worried they can invade their privacy. I can understand getting permission.”

Nevertheless, he added, “On your own land, I don’t see a problem.”

“Every time a person hears ‘drone,’ they either think ‘They are going to shoot at me or spy on me,’ ” AgEagle’s Nichol said.

But, Nichol noted, technology has to spiral for the world to grow – especially with the increasing number of mouths to feed. That is what they are trying to do in Neodesha, he said as the small crew in AgEagle’s shop assembled unmanned systems on an August morning.

“To us, it is like the beginning of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who were working out of their garages. It has that ‘Wilbur Wright and Orville in the bicycle shop’ feel to it,” Nichol said.

So,for now, despite the FAA restrictions, Chilcott and Nichol press on, continuing their research and development. Their small crew installs the technology in the light, foam-core wing design, which includes the specially modified near-infrared Canon camera, satellite GPS sensors and a battery that will allow the plane to fly for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on weather conditions.

Each UAS is flown before it is taken to the customer, and Chilcott and Nichol offer customers a day of hands-on training to show producers how to use it.

Chilcott expects his employment to double by the end of the year, thanks to the soaring interest. However, he adds, his company continues to grow and develop with the industry. He plans to launch a new UAS-type product later this fall.

“We will not become the Blackberry or the Palm Pilot of the industry," he said.

This story appeared in the fall edition of Kansas Agland. For more information on rural Kansas and farming and ranching news, visit www.kansasagland.com. To get on the Agland mailing list and receive a free quarterly issue, email ckohler@salina.com.