Commercial drone use has become prevalent across a variety of industries since the 1980s. These tools have become more commonplace over the last several years and have proven to be quite valuable.

“The total addressable value of drone-powered solutions in all applicable industries is significant — more than $127 billion,” the MIT Technology Review wrote in 2016. “Among the most promising areas is agriculture, where drones offer the potential for addressing several major challenges.”

Global Market Insights predicts that the agricultural drone market will surpass $1 billion by 2024.

“Growing awareness regarding (unmanned aerial vehicle) implementation benefits among farmers will support the agricultural drones market share from 2017 to 2024,” the company concluded. “Increasing technological advancements to enhance quality farming techniques will further drive the industry demand over the forecast timeline. Increasing automation due to lack of skilled resources and labor crisis will fuel the industry. Favorable government initiatives across the agricultural sector will allow large and small operations to aid in effective farming practices.”

Areas of the agricultural process that can and have been improved through drone use include crop monitoring, soil assessment, review of plant population, irrigation and drainage, fertility and crop protection, spraying of fertilizer and pesticides, and harvest planning.

Martin Goettl, geospatial technology facilitator for UW-Eau Claire’s Department of Geography and Anthropology, knows firsthand the significant role that drones can play in agriculture.

Goettl — along with Dr. Papia Rozario and a university student — is currently taking part in university research that features the use of drones at a local farm, owned and operated by Jodi Thesing-Ritter, UW-Eau Claire’s executive director for diversity and inclusion.

Goettl and his team are using drones at the Thesing-Ritter property to take aerial images of the crops using six image bands: red, green, blue, red edge, near-infrared and thermal. These images will allow them to create normalized difference vegetation index maps, according to Goettl. NDVI maps can be used to “analyze remote sensing measurements and assess whether the target being observed contains live green vegetation or not.”

Digital surface maps, thermal maps and others can also be generated using the images gathered, Goettl said. This information can increase crop production, lower water usage and reveal other issues, such as pests. The infrared images can identify whether crops are healthy or not.

“This integration (of new technology) is essential to the next generation of agriculture as the need for precise targeted adjustments to crops can be done as much on the fly, as planning over a long period of time,” Goettl said. “The farmers themselves know their crops better than anyone, and for them to see this type of information quickly and to be able to adjust quickly, if necessary, is imperative to keeping — especially — the family farm going.”

Thesing-Ritter is an avid supporter of local agriculture. She said she works to promote agriculture in the community through 4-H, and she served on the Farm Technology Days committee.

When Thesing-Ritter saw a potential opportunity for students to engage in agricultural research, she offered up her farm as the primary focus for her colleagues’ research.

“My goal in engaging many of my colleagues and doing work around ag is to promote it as a potential career field for our students, regardless of what they’re studying,” Thesing-Ritter said.

The crops grown at Thesing-Ritter’s farm include alfalfa, hay, corn and soybeans. Thesing-Ritter says she is not yet sure how the drone research will impact the way her farming is done.

“It’ll depend on what they find from their research and how we might be able to use it,” Thesing-Ritter said. “We live in a really sandy area of Eau Claire, so learning more about how our property functions will help us to know how to better use our resources to maximize yields.”

Thesing-Ritter added that the research being done on her property goes beyond helping her crops, alone. She said the work being done by the university is “amazing” for the agriculture industry, and she is excited to see the potential for similar projects in the future.

“As we face climate change and need to be the best possible stewards of the land we do have so we’re not further exacerbating the climate issues we have,” Thesing-Ritter said, “we need to know how to do farming as successfully as possible so that we’re not doing harm and we’re producing the highest amount of yield possible so that we can maximize both our earnings, as well as the way in which we feed the world.”

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