For agronomist Shawn Kand, looking down from 250 feet in the air is sometimes required for his job.
And to achieve that bird’s-eye view, he employs a drone that can capture instant high-resolution video or photographs of cropland to address issues such as nitrogen deficiencies, irrigation problems and seeding concerns.
“It’s autonomous,” said Kand about his four-propeller drone. “I’ll plug in the boundary of the farm, set my parameters at no more than 350 feet and set the speed I want to fly. I hit go and it will take off on its own and it will fly a specific pattern over that field, taking images about every two seconds.”
Those images can be transferred to Kand’s iPad in flight, which can take about 40 minutes to cover a 64-acre field.
From there, Kand, who owns BackRoads Consulting, said he stitches hundreds of photos together to create a normalized different vegetative index (NDVI) map, revealing vital information that can save the farmer time and money.
“Everything in green is showing extreme health,” said Kand of a wheat field he flew his drone over in the spring of 2019. “Everything in the yellow and red is falling below that (healthy) level. And actually, with this map, I can create zones to potentially variable rate nitrogen onto those acres. It breaks down how many acres are in the red and in the green pretty precisely. …Now you’re applying product where it actually needs it more and applying less product where it may not need it due to the health of the crop.”
Kand said the same drone and software technology can be used to track how fields are performing to format variable rate planting and seeding maps as well.
“You can take yield maps from several years and you can actually stack them all together and come up with one map,” Kand said. “It shows you places in that field that are constantly above the (yield) average of that farm and places in that field that are constantly below the average. …What you can do then is say, ‘Well, I don’t need to be spending as much money on seed in this (area) because it’s not producing. So I can spend less money there but still maintain that yield level.'”
Kand purchased his drone in the spring of 2018.
He said he can often tell from the ground whether or not a crop is growing as it should, but there are moments when a special tool is required.
“You can’t use every tool for every job,” said Kand, who carries his drone everywhere he goes. “Sometimes you have to have a specific tool to do a specific task. I look at a drone as just another tool in my toolbox that I can pull out when I need to get an aerial view of a situation that I can’t see from the ground.”
But to fly it as part of his business, Kand had to be licensed as a commercial drone pilot through the Federal Aviation Administration. He took a 60-question test that took him about two hours to complete.
And with the Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport nearby, he uses a smartphone app to ensure he doesn’t fly into restricted flight zones.
Kand said knowing where and how high he can fly drones is about safety for everyone.
“The reason for the test — and I agree with it — is it gives you an understanding of what’s happening in the sky,” said Kand, who can legally fly his drone up to 400 feet. “It’s so you have an understanding of air-traffic control, Class C and D airspace.”
But overall, Kand said having the drone at his disposal is a way he can provide the best service to his clients.
“I can snap a picture of a field with a drone and I can download it to my iPad and email it out before the drone even lands on the truck,” Kand said. “So it’s pretty powerful to send instant data, instant information to a customer. …I do see growers embracing it. Data is so important. And the more data you have, the more information you can pull from. … It’s about looking at farms in a different way to make them more profitable.”