MANSON - Kevin Butts, an ag instructor at Ellsworth Community College, asked and answered his own question.
"Are drones in your farming future? Yes," Butts said, during a Jan. 3 breakout session at the North Central Crops and Land Stewardship Clinic in Iowa Falls.
Butts told an audience of 24 that Labre Crop Consulting, in Manson, demonstrated an unmanned aerial vehicle for him and ECC students last fall.
Butts said many crop services and cooperatives are lining themselves up for providing camera flights over farm fields for a vast array of purposes once the Federal Aviation Authority (Agency) gives the OK for commercial uses of the flying machines.
He thinks that approval will be given within the next two years.
Brent Johnson, owner of the Labre Crop Consultants, said if this technology is exciting for U.S. farmers, it's been the reality for Europe and Japan for a long time.
Johnson will be taking a Swiss-made UAV, to the Iowa Power Farming Show from Jan. 28 to 30 at the Wells Fargo Convention Center in Des Moines. Labre's booth is No. 4146.
Johnson said the company started looking at providing UAV flights for its clients a year ago.
An employee, Nathan Stein, of Clare, took on the challenge to research the different types of UAVs on the market. Labre settled on a model called senseFly.
"It's the third generation of UAVs by this Swiss company," Johnson said.
He said he chose this company's UAV and the accompanying software because the whole system does more than most on the market.
"I preferred to buy American," Johnson said, "but the FAA has kept this technology subdued for so long, the U.S. is way behind."
He liked senseFly so much, he said, Labre has become the only precision ag dealer in Iowa and Nebraska with this model.
Although UAVs are not cleared for commercial company uses, farmers can use them to fly their own fields now, which is why Labre became a dealer for senseFly.
The UAV's uses are virtually endless, Johnson said, with an onboard camera, GPS tracking, a mini-computer that controls the devise's flight as well as send photos back to his computer.
When fully loaded, he said, and ready to fly, the UAV weighs less than 2 pounds and can fly in 30 miles-per-hour winds.
The UAV's uses include mapping a field's topography, find tile lines, determine soil types, locate problem areas in fields, such as nitrogen deficiencies, and spot herbicide drift damage.
It can help estimate corn yields in August, or help dairy and cattle feeders estimate silage before they chop corn.
"The dexterity of this program," Johnson said, "gets down to one plant.
"It's another tool to help figure out a problem spot."
He said the photo clarity is good enough to see weeds versus crops, or the presence of spider-mite stress in soybeans.
"Soybeans reflect light differently with spider mites than without," Johnson said. "You can see that easier than scouting and apply insecticide over those areas, rather than the entire field."
UAV use, when in conjunction with soil testing and field mapping, Johnson said, will give farmers more layers of information for crop and soil management decisions.
Johnson said he plans to fly his UAV over one of his own fields on a weekly basis from panting to harvest and tilling to build a season-long catalog of what's happening in the field.
"When I open a bag of seed corn," he said, "I have the potential of 600 bushels come from it.
"At harvest I wonder where I am losing yield."
He said the UAV and its software should help him find and correct any management problems and get him closer to his full yield potential of each acre.
Johnson said setting the UAV's flight path is easy. Once programmed and assembled, he said the operator shakes the unit three times, it powers up and when at full power, it's released and it sets about to fly its program.
The unit alternately climbs, cuts its power to eliminate vibration shake for the photo, takes it pictures at the bottom of a dip, then powers up, rises and starts the process over again until it's fulfilled its mission.
It then flies itself back to the operator and lands itself.
He said he once allowed the UAV to operate beyond its battery life. Before it ran out, the UAV turned itself to home, ran out of power and dropped into a field. Through GPS tracking, Johnson said he found the UAV with a few meters of where its signal said it could be found.
Johnson's UAV is not radio controlled, but follows its pre-programmed flight plan. If winds push it beyond the operator's stated boundaries, it will automatically correct its flight plan and get back on track.
Johnson said he once saw a wind flip the UAV upside down. It corrected its flight, returned to where it last took a photo and continued its program.
The software coming with the UAV will automatically stitch the images together. It can provide a multitude of information, and the stitching program is capable of building a 3D version of the field.
"The stitching software is actually more amazing than the flight software," Johnson said.
He said he's hoping to get four or five year's use of the UAV. On Jan. 11 the UAV had 90 hours of flight time. Johnson said he knows one senseFly model with more than 150 flights with no repairs.