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How are drones becoming more important in regenerative agriculture?

Read Time: 5 minutes

By Damon Oien June 22, 2023

We are seeing many growers begin to experiment with aerial applications with either airplanes or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Application method, species, and timing of the cover crop and its intended purpose all must be examined to make the plan come together successfully. With the maturities of our cash crops growing in length and many of our most beneficial cover crop species needing early fall growth, interseeding has often become our best option. One of the ways we are seeing growers begin to interseed crops is by aerial application.

UAVs have grown in popularity due to their versatility on the farm for things such as scouting, seeding, and spraying. Technology is constantly advancing with batter power and capacity improving and improvements in the software and autonomy of drones. These technological advancements make UAVs a great option to cut down on manual labor. Having pre-loaded boundaries and flight paths have increased efficiency and has helped applicators ensure that the product is being applied appropriately. Some application companies now have the ability to “swarm” multiple UAVs that synchronize together to apply product to more acres throughout the day whether seeding or spraying.

What are some advantages of using UAVs on farm?

  • Using UAVs for cover crop seeding and spraying can allow the application to be made to sensitive areas around populated regions in a more precise and timely manner.
  • There is a much larger window of application regarding proper ground condition.
  • They can be a great option when interseeding your cover crop.
    • When using ground equipment for interseeding, damage can be done to the integrity of the soil or the growing crop.
  • UAVs can apply cover crops or pesticides during wetter conditions.

When using aerial application methods for interseeding, your species of cover crop will determine what your application rate will be, which is very important considering many UAVs carry less than 50 lbs of seed at one time. Many seeding recommendations will increase the seeding rate by 25-50% in an aerial system, so be aware of how the increased rate may affect the logistics of the application through the UAV.

Although some limitations exist, many cover crop species that can be applied through a UAV can provide a greater benefit to you due to the additional growth they are able to generate before winter. Having adequate late summer and fall growth allows the cover cropping plan to bring more benefits to your operation.

What qualifications are needed to use UAVs for aerial application?

The quality of the pilot and company doing the application is very important when determining how a UAV might work in your interseeding plan. Many companies now offer seeding and spraying applications. Having an experienced pilot is as important as having a good operator from your retailer spraying or spreading on your farm. Seeding applications with a UAV follows standards set by the FAA and requires a Part 137 certification to conduct commercial applications. Some additional certifications are necessary when applying pesticides through aerial applications and follow similar standards as applications made by an airplane. It is also important to note that only pesticides that have aerial application as a method of application are allowed to be sprayed with UAVs. Make sure you know who is doing the application and that they are following the standards set forth by the FAA and EPA.

UAVs have become another useful tool to implement regenerative practices on the farm, by offering  the versatility to apply products in a timelier manner and with less restrictions from variable ground conditions. There are limitations in every system, but UAVs are advancing at a fast rate to overcome some of the logistic hurdles that may have been present in previous years.

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Damon Oien

Damon Oien is a Conservation Agronomist with the Cargill RegenConnect™ program. Damon has a diverse career in assisting growers in improving their operations through a systems approach. He has a Bachelor of Science from Western Illinois University and a passion for soil health. He is excited to work with growers in increasing soil health to build soil resiliency and increase profitability.