From the field to the sky; Purdue University uses drone technology for farming

FARMLAND, Ind. — Harvest time is here but the work doesn’t stop for farmers when the crops leave the field, in some ways it begins anew.

Hoosier farmers are busy this week dodging raindrops while planting cover crops like radishes, wheat and oats. This lineup of winter produce helps keep the soil, and the nutrients within, in place until next year.

Purdue University is using drones to do what tractors cannot, as they say the future of agriculture may be above the ground.

“I think this drone is absolutely amazing,” Purdue Extension Precision AG Educator Mark Carter said. “We use it for spreading seeds. Use it for spraying pesticides, herbicides. We can do it in a very precise manner. It’s very controlled.”

Remote controlled, Purdue University employs nearly 25 drones throughout Indiana at various AG Centers. Each drone can carry roughly 25 pounds of seed or liquid which is then programmed and spread throughout any given field. 

“You think about the first tractor that pulled something without horses… that was technology,” Carter said. “This is just the next step. We have digital agriculture where we’re mapping everything, we’re tracking every acre and immediately we started seeing some different results.”

With the help of their eight-propellered implements, farmers can plot their fields, plant more precisely and get a real time view of what’s typically reserved for birds.

“Real time information can let you know if you have any issues emerging… whether it’s disease or insects, weeds or water issues,” Carter said. “You can see it from up high. and you don’t need a bunch of fancy software, you just fly up and take a look and see what’s there.”

While most newer tractors are equipped with satellite technology which allows them to be precise to the nearest inch, these often, self driving tractors, still come up short when the weather’s wet. 

“The fields are so muddy that if we put a tractor in there right now it’s gonna sink. It’s gonna rut up the field. It’s gonna make a big mess,” Carter said. “The beautiful thing about this technology with the drones is I’m spreading cover crops today where as we couldn’t get the tractor and the drill in to plant the cover crop even if we waited a few days… and the weather today is favorable for planting – why waste time?”

If time is money then Carter says farmers should be all ears. 

“Every dollar counts, our seasons aren’t always the longest and the weather is always a variable so every minute counts,” Carter said. “Our margins are thin that’s why it all really matters.”

At Purdue University’s Davis Purdue AG Center along County Road 900 West in Farmland, a few miles northeast of Muncie; educators like Carter and AG-Center Superintendent Jeff Boyer take the time to test new technology so hardworking producers don’t have to.

“The story of Indiana agricultures been a story of progress. It’s very important I think in some of the things that we do here with the price of seed and fertilizers and herbicides nowadays… you can save on product in a lot of cases with technology like this at your disposal,” Boyer said. “We do the testing to save farmers the runaround because sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t.”

Purdue University also offers farmers courses to help them pass the FAA Part 107 License Course for drones to help more Hoosier farmers get their FAA certifications to fly commercial drones of their own. 

“Generally speaking it’s an improvement in efficiency as things change and evolve, but this technology is not for everybody. There are people who say no, I’m gonna use my sprayer… I’m gonna do my own field scouting, I’m gonna use satellite for field scouting which is totally fine,” Boyer said. “It’s virtually impossible to predict where things may go in the future. But it’s fun to be a part of that change and in time the drones will get bigger I think so you’ll have more capacity to do more things and the cost will come down too to make it more affordable.”

Bringing farms into the future by bringing seeds to the skies, Purdue believes all their tests will yield positive results, meaning more drones could be humming in fields near you. 

“Everything these drones can do creates a more positive environment, a healthier soil if you will, for soybeans, corn, wheat, whatever your cash crop is,” Carter said. “The technology’s absolutely amazing,” Carter said. “We’re using it in amazing ways working with producers, working with local communities to educate and inform.”

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