Drone use eyed in southwest Va.’s mountainous terrain
BLACKSBURG, Va. (Nov. 29, 2017) — Drones have the potential to help farmers take better care of their animals, their crops and their land someone said during during a program here sponsored by the Virginia Young Farmers and Ranchers Coalition.
The Drones in Agriculture Demonstration Nov. 18 was broken into two parts, a classroom discussion in Virginia Tech’s Alphine-Stuart Arena and the flight of a drone at the university’s nearby Sheep Center, both on campus.
The researchers, Dan Swafford, Virginia 4-H curriculum specialist and Morgan Paulette, Pulaski County Extension agent, shared their experiences in learning how drones can help farmers. Both stressed research is in the very early stages, especially in the hills and mountains of Southwest Virginia. They are each licensed drone pilots.
Swafford said he has a vision of a farmer being able to sit on his back porch and use a drone to monitor his whole farm.
He said much of his work has been done with helping disabled farmers.
Paulette said this technology has the potential to fulfill Swafford’s vision.
Dr. John McGee, Virginia geospatial Extension specialist, heads the drone research team Paulette is part of, doing research at Kentland Farm. Other team members are Daniel Cross, a member of the Conservation Management Institute; Lee Wright, superintendent at the Southwest Virginia AREC, and Phil Blevins, Washington County, Va. Extension agent, are the other team members.
Swafford, who works with the sheep on campus for his research, grew up on a sheep farm in Missouri. He often uses a drone to monitor where the sheep are grazing.
In his demonstration, he flew a drone over the paddocks to monitor the animals. The drone enabled him and his visitors to check the locations and conditions of the animals without disturbing them.
During the classroom portion, Swafford showed pictures of how he used drones during the summer to monitor a large field of potatoes at the university’s Catawba Sustainability Center.
The drone helped find a large washout in the field where erosion had etched a path through the crop.
He also showed rows of hardwood saplings that have been planted at the center as part of a forestry project. The drone enabled him to spot dead trees without walking through the large acreage.
Paulette is studying the use of drones to check cattle and other livestock without physically traveling across an entire farm. Such a use has the potential of spotting a sick animal in the early stages of illness.
He stressed more research is needed to reach this goal.
The speakers noted drones are more widely used in the flat croplands of Eastern Virginia. Much of the research they discussed is looking at how this technology can be used in the more challenging topography of the region.
“I would look at is as an extension of myself if I were a farmer,” Paulette said.
Some of the possible uses of drones Paulette mentioned are soil and field analysis; spraying; crop monitoring; irrigation; and plant health.
He showed images prepared using drones to detect problem areas in a pasture.
The researchers see the potential benefits as saving time and money; earlier detection of illness in livestock; making management decisions in livestock, crops and pasture; and reducing land disturbance.
Introducing this technology to young people is seen as a way to attract them to jobs in the agricultural industry as well.
Swafford said drone pilots are being educated at Virginia Community colleges. More are expected to offer the curriculum. Drone pilots must have a license in most cases.
He noted there are rules drone owners need to know and follow.
In his case, where the Virginia Tech Sheep Center is so close to the airport here, he has to contact the airport every time he flies his drone at the sheep facility.
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