A Look at UAVs in Agriculture

From the advancements in animal well-being, the milestones made in biotechnology, to technological developments in precision agriculture and precision animal management, agriculture is a continuously evolving industry. One of the newest popular technologies starting to be used by farmers is called an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), also known as a “drone.” These small aircrafts are remotely controlled and have many possibilities and potential benefits for farmers around the world.DSC_0649

Brian Luck, AgrAbility of Wisconsin Co-Director, assistant professor in Biological Systems Engineering at UW-Madison and a UW-Extension machinery and precision agriculture specialist, has been working on solving issues related to precision agriculture. During a presentation about assistive technology, Luck described prospective uses of UAVs for farmers with injuries or limitations. For instance, UAVs may provide farmers who cannot easily move around their farms with the capability of checking field crops or animals in the pasture. This would decrease the need to travel through acres of uneven ground on foot, reducing wear and tear on the body and eliminating some risks of injury.

Interest in the use of UAVs for crop scouting has increased in recent years, and it is easy to see why. Each crop has pests that can be damaging to the overall health and yield, and by using a UAV with video capabilities a farmer can see the crops without walking through the entire field. The video can be transferred through an application on the operator’s phone, allowing farmers to see their crops, or animals in real time. Luck said, “This 1000 foot view (no pun intended) can be helpful in early detection and decision making to address any issues that may arise in the fields or pastures.”

There are also imaging capabilities that show the health of crops using a color contrast, showing how much sunlight is absorbed by the crop canopy. Knowing how well the crops are growing could improve water usage, nutrient efficiency, and pest management. It can give farmers the knowledge of possible problems that cannot be seen with just the naked eye and allow for adjustments to be made during the growing season prior to plant damage and/or yield loss.

DSC_0653Using UAVs to check animals can provide farmers peace of mind with minimal effort. Many animals are accustomed to farm machinery noises, but the buzzing from a UAV can create a problem initially. However, when visiting UW-Madison’s Arlington Agriculture Research Station, the AgrAbility of Wisconsin staff flew a UAV near grazing dairy cattle and the cows did not seem bothered by the noise.

Even though the UAV cannot legally be autonomously flown, there are global positioning system (GPS) features in most UAVs that can be programmed to follow a specific pattern. Like other farm equipment equipped with GPS, the UAVs will travel a specified route and return to the designated location. This can allow its operator to focus on the video feedback during a flight without having to focus solely on guiding the device.

Many UAVs used in agriculture include a failsafe feature, which will force the UAV to return to the original location it took off from when the battery is low or communication is lost with the controller. Unfortunately, the battery life of most UAVs is typically between 10 to 20 minutes, leaving farmers with large herds or fields with limited time to observe everything. Luckily, additional batteries are easy to get from a variety of sources.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set forth safety and regulations when operating UAVs. To provide users with the information they need, the FAA along with the help of associations in the industry, create the Know Before You Fly to aid new and future users on safety and regulations. To start, a UAV needs to be flown under 400 feet and remain clear of any surrounding obstacles, including buildings and silos. The FAA also requires that the aircraft remain in sight of the operator at all times, so farmers who are observing many fields or pastures will still be required to move a little around the farm if it is hilly, like most farms in Wisconsin. Additional regulations when using UAV’s include keeping the UAV at least five miles from airports or control towers and that it weighs less than 55 pounds. Since most agriculture is considered non-recreational, farmers who operate UAVs may require a UAV pilot license and can use it in daylight only.

Choosing the UAV that works best can be difficult and there are many factors to consider, from the features that will aid the efficiency of the agricultural operation to the budget set by the farmer. There are many resources for consumers looking for a UAV through local UW Extension offices and online. While ensuring that the UAV fits the operation, it is also important to follow the regulations set forth by the FAA.



References and Resources:


Federal Aviation Administration:




Know Before You Fly



UW Extension