Drones likely on many farmers’ Christmas wish lists

Dennis Bowman for Chronicle Media
The agriculture industry says drones have many practical uses for farms.

The agriculture industry says drones have many practical uses for farms.

There is no doubt that small, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones are on many wish lists this Christmas.

The government estimated that up to one million drones might be delivered by Christmas. Most of these will likely not end up on the farm, but many will.

To be totally honest, these devices are a lot of fun, but around the farm they have many practical applications.

The Federal Aviation Administration considers using a drone for business purposes a commercial activity. Currently, the FAA only allows people or companies with a special 333 exemption to operate drones commercially. The paperwork involved in obtaining a 333 exemption is staggering, but over 1000 exemptions have been granted. Hopefully, sometime next year, the FAA will enact their proposed rules for commercial drone use. These rules seem fairly practical. After all, I think we can all agree we want the skies to be safe.

While business use of drones on the farm is pending, there is nothing to stop you from operating small drones under the model aviation guidelines. For now you can get comfortable with the technology and probably take some cool pictures and video. Under the model aviation guidelines, fly only for recreational, stay below 400 feet altitude, and don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport. For a full explanation of these guidelines check out the FAA’s “Know before you fly” website.

From someone that has been working with UAVs/drones for a few years here are my tips for staying safe and enjoying the technology. I know it is boring but, read the directions before you even unpack your drone. The core technologies inside are radios and computers, and generally require that steps be completed in a specific order.

If you don’t like to read the information in many cases it is also available in video format. So, watch the video, read the instructions or better yet do both until you are comfortable. Now unpack. Charge the batteries fully.

Some drones have smart batteries and chargers that simplify the process, but make sure you have a full charge before flying. Most drones currently use lithium polymer (Li-po) batteries. Generic li-po batteries are rather amazing in the amount of energy they can store, but if they are over-charged, over-discharged or stored inappropriately they can become unstable and even dangerous. Take a few seconds to learn more about these batteries.

Your first flights should be in an open environment  — trees are not your friends. Pick a time when winds are calm. While most models can handle breezy conditions, those aren’t the best for first time flights.

Set up for your flight, double check all your indicators are good, radio links, GPS lock, etc.  

Double check the area around for obstructions, people or pets. When you are satisfied everything is good, start the motors and take off straight up.

Try to get about three feet up and hover. Now you can start learning the controls one by one. Have fun and stay safe.

Dennis Bowman is an educator in the commercial ag-field crops division with the University of Illinois Extension Offices.

–Drones likely on many farmers’ Christmas wish lists–