Drones

Forward Vision in Field Scouting

By Angi Bunn, Communication Coordinator

What is the best way to move forward? In the evolution of a family business, that is the question most struggled with. It was no different for Aaron Sheller when, in 2004 his father passed away while Aaron was still a college student.  Aaron suddenly became the manager of his family’s seventh generation farm in central Indiana. He was quickly faced with making decisions on how best to move forward as a business.

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“I knew if we were going to grow and be viable, we needed to be innovative in our practices.” Aaron explains that eleven years ago, the most volatile nutrient the Sheller farm used was nitrogen. He had seen field trials out of Iowa using a high-boy side-dress bar, and commissioned one made for his farm. While applying nutrients though, it became apparent he was still missing an important component. “I was seeing areas of the field where there were problems I could have fixed – but it was too late. I didn’t have time to walk every acre of these fields. That’s frustrating. I could have fixed the problem if I was aware of it sooner.”

Aaron tried to address his scouting problems in various ways for several years. When his friend, Matt Minnes, stopped by the farm on a seed sales call, Aaron says, “I told him, man, stop trying to sell me seed and fix my real problem.” Aaron then explained his scouting issues to Matt, “he came back a few days later with this toy.” The toy was a remote control drone, which the pair used to take images of Aaron’s fields. It wasn’t a solution, but they could see potential. “It was essentially a mobile grain leg – you know when you climb up on your grain leg and you can see out over your fields – that’s what we were seeing. We thought, yeah, this could work.”

That was the beginning of Precision Drone®, a company owned by Aaron and Matt. They are joined by Director of Sales, Adam Sheller. As a company, Precision Drone has evolved, just as the Sheller family farm has done. Aaron explained they quickly realized they needed some type of mapping technology. “It’s hard to sit and watch hours of video, spotting problem areas.” While they knew field mapping was essential for drone images to be of use, the first stages of the technology were very basic. “Our very first map, my two-year-old daughter sat in the sprayer next to me, holding the printed image, while I drove the tractor, manually adjusting the rate controller – we just knew there was a better way.”

Those steps led to Precision Vision™, a true NDVI, geo-rectified orthophoto. NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) is a numerical indicator that uses the visible and near-infrared bands of the photosynthetic spectrum to assess whether the targeted object is live green vegetation or not. Aaron explains Precision Vision is an overlay image, and will show efficiencies in photosynthesis. The images can pinpoint areas of nutrient deficiency, pest damage, or disease.

HODGEN NDVI-2Aaron says one of the most important aspects of utilizing drones and mapping technology is that he is able to make same-day decisions on his operation. “The farmer gets the images immediately following the flight. The map will load into any farm management software – the images are even small enough to email.” Best of all, it makes input decisions more effective. “This is a roadmap – I can walk right to problem areas, I can adjust my crop protection products to the areas it will do the most good. I can put the nutrients where they will be most effective.”

While drones are proving their value as a field-scouting tool, Aaron stresses that it is a tool – and a grower must be educated on how to operate the tool. “Training is as important as the product purchased. A multi-rotor drone makes sense for a grower who isn’t a flight specialist – and doesn’t want to be. Training hones in on what the grower needs to know to manage his fields.” He adds the drones can be programmed to automatically fly fields in a systematic pattern for historical data. “That works great – unless there’s a situation where you need to take control. It doesn’t happen often, but you need to know what you’re doing, in case.”

The Federal Aviation Administration oversees guidance for unmanned aircraft systems, which is how drones are categorized. A grower who wants to use a drone to scout land he owns can do so as a hobbyist; the drone must operate in accordance with community-based safety guidelines, must not fly within five miles of an airport, remain under 400 feet, remain within sight of the operator at all times, and may not be flown at night. [Picture of person operating drone] Operators must also comply with all Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) as issued by the FAA. In order to scout fields commercially – or for hire – an operator must be a commercial pilot or apply for a Sec 333 exemption from the FAA and become a Certified Sport Pilot as licensed through the FAA. To acquire a sport license, the operator must meet medical eligibility, pass an FAA sport pilot knowledge test, receive flight instruction in an appropriate aircraft, and pass an FAA sport pilot practical test. As an agent of Precision Drone, with the Pacesetter, a commercial application can be done using Precision Drone’s Sec 333 to reduce lead time.

 

While drones and mapping technology have solved the scouting problems on Aaron’s farm, he stresses the necessity of utilizing all resources available. “We work with local agronomists. Lots of companies have resources available; partner with someone who wants to help you make decisions.” He says his goal is to use the information he gets from Precision Vision to make informed management decisions on his operation. “I may not decrease my input costs – but I know that money is going to directly affect my yield. I’m putting what my crops need, where I need to be putting it. That’s the bottom line.” A prescription-based solution to management issues, that the answer to Aaron’s original problem. He encourages others to utilize technology to benefit their farm, “stop hoping you’re addressing the right problems, start knowing you are.” That’s the way the Sheller Farms and Precision Drone are moving forward.

 

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