A small craft floated over the top of a cornfield, scanning the canopy. It wasn’t invaders from another planet, but it could be one of the next steps in the future of agriculture.

Mid-Kansas Cooperative, WinField United and American Robotics partnered to launch their first fully-automated drone for agricultural use. The drone was used at fields in Wamego and outside of Hesston.

“The special thing about this pilot is that this drone has the ability to be completely autonomous,” said Troy Walker, MKC Agronomy Field Sales and Precision Ag Manager. “It can take off, perform a programmed mission, and land back at its station with no human interaction.”

While it did those things during the pilot, it can’t be left completely to do its job alone just yet. Under current Federal Aviation Administration regulations, someone had to be present with their hands on the controls, and the drone had to be within line of sight of its handler.

However, the drone has the ability to fly five miles from its base.

“The purpose of the pilot was to give the American robotics team an opportunity to test the system in the field and see what adjustments may be needed,” Walker said.

The pilot began in late July and lasted through the first week of August. On August 7, producers and retailers were invited to see the drone in action at the Wamego location.

American Robotics is currently working with legislators to adjust regulations to allow for automated drones in agriculture. Walker and others believe the ability to map and monitor fields with less manpower is a big step in the right direction for agriculture.

The precision agriculture program at Northwest Kansas Technical College has an Unmanned Aircraft Systems program as well, looking at the future of drones in agriculture for chemical application and more.

“That’s the future of drones. It’s not just imagery. Satellites are doing a pretty good job, and you can’t do broad acres with drones,” Weston McCary, director of precision agriculture and unmanned aircraft systems at NWKTC, said. “Satellites can show us where hotspots are at. You don’t know what’s causing it. You don’t know if its nutrient deficiency or mosaic or cutworms, but when you see a concern you can go mobilize a drone where a scout’s not going to walk in two spans of corn. You can deploy a drone and get a really tight, high resolution look.”

McCary thinks drone technology may go even further.

“The future of crop protection is large unmanned drones,” he said. “That’s why K-State now has a master’s in UAS at Salina. Producers can do more accurate delivery of these potent chemicals and fertilizers with that kind of technology.”