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Drones are taking off at Iowa Power Farming Show

DES MOINES, Iowa – The third largest farm show in the country has overtaken the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, and out of all the new technology on display, there’s one that’s clearly taking off as a viable part of modern farming: agricultural drones.

In fact, five different companies are showcasing drones at this year’s show, including four plane-type UAVs and three helicopter-type drones, according to the show’s organizers.

That’s a lot of attention on technology that isn’t even formally regulated by the federal government yet, although it’s not difficult to see where that interest is coming from.

Drones improve crop scouting

For one thing, drones (also called UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles) are accessible. Newer models use nothing more than an iPad to get off the ground. But they’re also a new way to scout crops. Using specialized cameras that can monitor near-infrared colors, drones can keep an eye on plant health, and will quickly catch pest pressure or fertilizer application problems.

“The technology is rapidly developing, and before long, it’ll be just like everyone having a cell phone,” says central Iowa farmer Jerry Fynaardt, who also sells AgEagle UAVs. AgEagles look like flat triangles; a type of aircraft called a flying wing. Fynaardt says that for a farmer, much of the value of an agricultural drone is in its ability to identify problems before they’re even visible during scouting.

“We’re able to go over on top of a crop and see a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on, and hopefully stay maybe a day or two ahead of any type of stress or change in the crop,” says Fynaardt, adding that the goal is “keeping the farmer ahead of the game, and making sure those plants have a good day, every day. And not wait until we can see it with a naked eye. So, when our plane goes up, we’re snapping images we’re getting NDVI photos back that we can come back and say, ‘Is there a stress in a particular area of the field or not?'”

The Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI) expresses plant health by colors based on the radiation that the plant is both absorbing and reflecting. Unhealthy plants fall outside the color range, making problem areas easy to identify with NDVI photographs that drones can take.

Regulations are still uncertain

Since they first appeared over farm fields, drones have occupied a kind of legal gray area; not quite airplanes, but not exactly toys either.

Fynaardt says drone regulations are still up in the air; Congress has mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration establish rules by the end of the year. But until then, Fynaardt says the FAA still is unlikely to bother farmers flying drones, due to its current rules on flying drones as a hobby.

“Right now, we’re flying under the umbrella of the hobby industry,” he explains. “So as long as we’re under 400 feet, we’re staying several miles from an airport and populated areas, we’re not experiencing any trouble with the FAA and honestly, they’re not going to bug us with that. So the farmer that wants to stay within those regulations are going to be perfectly legal for now.”

To hear more about the drones featured at the Iowa Power Farming Show in Des Moines, click the audio player above this story.