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DJI AGRAS drone spraying an agriculture field

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.—Drones are revolutionizing crop management practices as researchers in the agricultural industry continue to seek ways for farmers to practice stewardship in tandem with profitability. In addition to weather variations, growers also contend with field shape and layout—as well as machine availability and ground conditions.

Steve Li, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System weed scientist, said drone usage has the potential to make a positive impact on the environment through targeted input applications, reduction of environmental impact and reduction of waste. Drones are allowing growers to make progress during the growing season when the odds are stacked against them.

“Spray drones make it really easy for growers with small acreage, slopes or challenging field shapes to make field applications without taking a boom sprayer in the field or contracting a crop duster,” Li said.

In-Field Variations

“When it comes to field crop farming, growers have to deal with a lot of in-field variations,” Li said. “Those variations usually contribute to the yield. This means the yield is usually not equal across the field. Growers have a few good sections, as well as some troublesome areas.”

Li, who is also an associate professor in the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s department of crop, soil and environmental sciences, said new drone technologies will enable researchers to pinpoint not-so-productive areas and also divert the expensive inputs to utilize fertilizer and seeds more precisely.

“Drones are a brand-new way to reduce input costs and increase farm profitability,” he said.

Ongoing Research

Li began his work with weed science in turfgrass as graduate student at Auburn University. He then went on to the University of Georgia to study weed management in row crops. Nearly eight years ago, he returned to Auburn University and Alabama Extension to focus on weed control. It wasn’t until 2019 that Li began his focus on drone use in field crops, but it is a venture that he continues to pursue with a varied group of projects.

“Three years ago, we began working with drones and precision technologies,” Li said. “Now we are heavily focused on delivering crop protection chemicals—including herbicide, fungicides and insecticides—as well as other chemicals farmers typically use on the farm with these new technologies.”

Li and his group of graduate students are working on a project where researchers would use drones to identify weed infestation on the ground, then deploy spray drones to spray infested spots precisely to save herbicide cost and reduce environmental impact. Other projects include testing spray drone coverage and spray quality compared to airplanes and ground rigs, balancing coverage and drift in spray drone applications and spreading cover crop seeds and fertilizers aerially with drones.

“In this stage of my career we are able to work on more diverse projects, but there is still a strong emphasis on weed control and pesticide applications in general,” Li said.

The Future

Li said in the near future it would be difficult to replace ground rigs or airplane applications. However, spray drones do have their own fit in the cropping system.

“Drones have a complementary fit—particularly in areas like the Southeast, where growers have smaller fields, prolonged wet periods or areas without crop duster service,” Li said.

The end goal is not to replace current application methods, but to find a reasonable and complementary way to work spray drones into the field management equation. Adoption of drone use in field crop farming is currently low because the technology is still new. However, Li said the interest among growers, crop consultants and pesticide applicators is high.

“I have personally worked with several growers who are interested in buying spray drones, as well as crop consultants who want to utilize scouting drones in their business,” he said. “I think we have a decent number of growers interested in the technology and who are considering investing in drone technologies in the next two to three years.”

Li believes the adoption rate of drones will increase because of the ease of use. He said obtaining Federal Aviation Administration certificates to fly drones on farm is not as difficult as one may think, although it does take time to process the certificates, so the barriers to using scout or spray drones are not insurmountable.

Responsibility is Essential

While the interest in using drone technology is high, Li said responsible use is imperative. He encourages growers interested in using drones, as well as those who are already flying drones over the field, to use products according to the label.

“I want to emphasize the importance of following label and Environmental Protection Agency requirements,” Li said. “It is very important for everyone who utilizes this new technology to be responsible.”

Li said Alabama Extension professionals are happy to help producers assess drone options suitable for their operations or support drone applications on their farms.

More Information

For more information about precision agriculture or the use of drones in forestry and agriculture, visit www.aces.edu.