By Heather Smith Thomas Contributing Editor
Drones were once a novelty, but new technology has made them practical for crop monitoring and livestock management. Drones have become commonplace in crop production, and there are a growing number of applications for livestock producers in managing fields and pastures, and monitoring cattle.
The recent Midwest Agricultural Exports Summit discussed labor shortages, and drones have emerged as a promising solution to some of these challenges. Some drones are equipped with technology to accomplish autonomous planting, crop monitoring and spraying, requiring fewer workers.
Hylio is a Texas company that produces easy-to-use AgroDrones and crop-spraying drone systems. During testing, they were able to consistently treat hundreds of acres per day. Their team is constantly innovating and creating more effective and intelligent hardware and software systems.
Drones have emerged as a promising solution to labor shortages.
Arthur Erickson, Hylio CEO and co-founder, says these large crop-spraying drones can carry liquid or solid payloads and dispense them accurately and precisely across fields.
“These are unmanned; the operator is not directly commanding them,” Erickson says. “You interface with them using a computer. You just click ‘Go’ and they go out and fly predetermined treatment missions that you assigned previously – a pattern you already laid out. You are giving it maps, and it flies out to do its thing.”
A person can deploy fleets of autonomous AgroDrones to tackle high-acreage broadcast treatments or maximize cost savings by treating only the areas that need attention. You can also go from mapping to spraying in a matter of minutes and command up to four AgroDrones per ground station. Once they have finished their job or run out of payload, they automatically return home for their next task.
“Many ranchers also utilize our products, not just for monitoring cow herds – which a person can do, since there are cameras on board to take pictures or count animals as they fly over and find lost cattle – but also for spraying or seeding grasslands,” he says. “These can be used effectively for weed control to grow more grass for the cattle.
“We operate a ranch in South Texas and spray our own grasslands to eliminate weeds,” Erickson says. This is much more effective and labor-saving than utilizing a pickup or ATV with a spray rig.
“These drones don’t need a pilot; a single operator can be out there and command multiple drones. This extends the power of your help when you have a limited workforce.”
The computer technology is relatively simple and user-friendly. “We put a lot of work ‘under the hood’ to make this seamless for the user’s experience,” Erickson says.
Livestock producers who don’t have crops but want to maximize pasture production might be interested in what these drones can do. They may have areas of pasture beaten down by tractors going through, or heavy cattle use.
“A person could use these drones to spread grass seed in those areas, just as you can spread herbicides in certain areas for weed control,” he explains. Maybe the whole pasture doesn’t need reseeded, but could be spot-seeded.
Brent Auvermann, Ph.D., professor of agricultural engineering and center director, Texas A&M AgriLife Research at Amarillo, says a drone can be useful for detecting calving or lambing problems, a sick animal or something that’s not quite right. Videos or photos could be helpful in many situations.
“A temperature sensor might be handy,” he says. Checking animal movement or patterns of movement can be useful. A person can see if animals are lame or being chased by predators. Drones can stay under the cloud deck, close to the ground and the things you want to image.
John Walker, San Angelo AgriLife Research and Extension Center, says you can also pre-program drones to run a route, such as checking a fence. You can check pastures more often or more closely to know if there is a break in the fence or the neighbor’s bull is in with your cows.
Drones can be used in conjunction with active RFID tags. “Many stockmen use passive RFID tags that must be within 1 or 2 meters of the reader, but active RFID tags could be read from a distance – maybe a few miles away,” Walker says.
John Church, associate professor, Natural Resource Sciences Department at Thompson Rivers University at Kamloops, British Colombia, says there are now drones with incredible battery life and smart controllers. Drones can also serve as platforms to put other sensors on.
“We’ve been putting thermal cameras on drones to see how much better we can find animals under trees in brushy pastures,” Church says. “I use a DJI drone that I can program with GPS coordinates and fly right to the cow to see if she has a calf, is sick or stuck in a fence or bog.”
“We are focused now on two types of tags – satellite-enabled GPS tags as well as similar tags using LoRa, a GPS tracker where you set up a base station on the ranch to relay the GPS signal to a base station, and then on to cellular networks. We can get that information [GPS positions] into the Cloud. You can know where your cow is and, eventually, we’ll be able to receive temperature information and activity levels.
“In the future we can weigh cattle with drones using imaging software,” Church says. “You can lock onto the selected cow on your screen and get the drone to circle around that cow and film it. From that we’ll construct a 3D model and have accurate weight estimation.
“We can also measure heat stress, respiration rate and body temperature,” he adds. “I am working with a company that has sophisticated boluses to put in cattle. These provide movement activity or internal body temperature and can tell if the cow is in heat, etc. We can upload all the data to the drone.”