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Columbia Business Monthly

For some farmers, drones are becoming a vital tool in growing their crops

Mar 06, 2019 12:19PM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Richard Breen

Current locavore foodie trends aside, most people’s mental image of a farmer is that of a manual laborer with a tractor and a faded John Deere hat.

“A lot of people don’t think of farmers as scientists, but plant growing is a science,” says Daniel Scheiner. “There’s some point in every farmer’s workflow that involves high tech.”

More and more, the high-tech world of the modern farmer includes an unmanned aerial vehicle, a.k.a. drones. Here in South Carolina, farmers are beginning to use drones and think about how they will be used in the future.

Augusta, Ga.’s SkyAgTech Inc. is one such organization lending farmers an in-the-sky hand.

“We go out to farmers’ areas to do a yield analysis or see if we can find pests or stress,” says Scheiner, chief executive and co-founder of SkyAgTech. “The other thing we do is damage assessment that they can forward to their crop insurance companies.”

Eric Harkins of Columbia-based Back Forty Aerial Solutions has also worked with farmers on projects.

“Mainly what farmers are looking for is row counts at emergence,” he says. “We’ve also been using it in timber management.”

Chalmers Carr, owner of Titan Farms Inc. near the Saluda County town of Ridge Spring, says he’s used drones on a limited basis so far.

“There are a lot of tools coming out in the next few years that we’re really excited about,” he says. “The technology’s just not there yet.”

A growing market
The money’s already there. According to California-based QY Research, the worldwide agricultural drone market was valued at $990 million in 2017 and is projected to reach $6.73 billion by 2025.

The Federal Aviation Administration counted slightly more than 110,000 drones of all types in the U.S. in 2017. By 2022, it estimates that number will be more than 450,000. It says agriculture accounts for approximately 17 percent of unmanned aerial vehicle use.

“It’s a growing market as the technology’s better understood by the farmers,” says Scheiner, whose Augusta, Georgia business works with farms from South Georgia to South Carolina’s Pee Dee region. “Our footprint is growing in South Carolina.”

Walker Miller is enthusiastic about potential UAV use.

“I do not use drones yet. I want to,” he says in an email to Greenville Business Magazine. Miller has a doctorate in plant pathology and plant physiology and manages The Happy Berry farm near Lake Keowee. “One of the big problems in agriculture is applying plant pharmaceuticals for disease and insect management. South Carolina is a small-field agriculture state, which means that small equipment works better for aerial application.”

Drones could cover fields too small for traditional crop dusters, particularly following rainfall, when plants are most at risk but sit in fields too muddy for tractors.

“The technology’s just getting out there with drones that can carry weight,” says Bob Hall, owner of Bush-N-Vine Farm in York. “Our goal is to be able to do some testing this spring.”

The FAA limits drones to 55 pounds.

“It includes the payload,” Scheiner says. “That’s the problem.”

Hall says he’s used drones for aerial photography. Unmanned aerial vehicles can also carry sophisticated sensors.

“We’ve had a lot of projects the past few years,” says Dr. Joe Maja of Clemson University’s Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville.

Maja says drones can be mounted with infrared, near-infrared, and multispectral cameras that can reveal disease or stress in plants. He started using drones in 2009 while at the University of Florida to identify trees with citrus greening, a disease that has wreaked havoc with oranges there.

“We’ve also looked at different diseases on peanuts,” he says. “We use drones very specifically for research purposes. We’re very lucky. Farmers come to us and ask them to help us.”

Return on investment
Unmanned aerial vehicles could also assist with cultivating the next generation of farmers.

“It is something that farmers have seen as a potential lure to keep kids on the farm after college,” Harkins says. “They’re saying, ‘Hey. We’re high-tech, too.’ ”

Titan Farms dedicates several pages of its website to the various technology it uses to grow bell peppers, broccoli, and peaches.

“We think our payback on investing in technology is phenomenal,” Carr says. He explains how they use cameras to assist in peach grading and how a web-based irrigation system cut their water usage in half. “We’ve saved millions of dollars annually.”

Next up: drones will be able to spray chemicals on plants more efficiently and safely—if not more comfortably.

“Imagine wearing a spray suit in the middle of July,” Carr says.

And in case you’re wondering, drone-enabled agricultural intelligence firm Agribotix LLC has announced a partnership with—you guessed it—John Deere.
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