Drones at Colorado Farm Show could be cheaper alternative for farmers to get images of crops
February 3, 2014
Hiding in the shadow of the giant farming equipment at this year's Colorado Farm Show in Greeley is something much smaller: an unmanned drone equipped with state-of-the-art imaging technology.
The drone can be used to take images of farmers' fields and let them know what parts of their crops need fertilizer or pesticide. Normally, most farmers use piloted planes or satellite imagery to get information about their soil and crops.
But the cost of hiring a piloted plane is very expensive, and the times satellites can view their fields do not always match a farmer's needs.
Paying a drone operator to survey fields could be a cheaper alternative, but the drones themselves are expensive.
The drones, built and offered by Sanborn Map Co. of Colorado Springs, cost more than $95,000 each to build, and the multispectral camera in a drone alone costs more than $100,000.
So how can the drone, which costs more than $200,000 in total, be more cost-effective?
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Jeff Specht, a Sanborn consultant who publishes the Earth Imaging Journal, said the device itself is not for sale but Sanborn's services are.
"The farmer wouldn't buy this device. It is going to be a kind of subscription service where they pay to have us go out and gather necessary data for them," Specht said.
The drone displayed at the farm show is the Leptron Avenger. The device is electric and can reach heights of more than 12,000 feet.
This is the first year the company has exhibited the drone at the Colorado Farm Show. They are not yet selling their service because the Federal Aviation Administration hasn't yet cleared the drones to fly in the United States
The FAA is still testing drone technology at six different sites in the United States and developing research to safely integrate it.
Sanborn is at the farm show this year to get opinions of the farmers who would be interested in their services in the future.
"We are just here to get an idea of what the people like and what they don't and to see what works and what doesn't. That way, next year, we can sell the best service possible," said Specht.
One controversy surrounding the use of the drones is concern that they could be used to spy on people.
Jason Caldwell, director of strategic operations for Sanborn, said those concerns are unfounded and that the sole purpose of their technology is to provide a more cost-effective way for farmers to tend their fields.
Caldwell also speculated that the drone technology could be used for other purposes in the future such as fighting forest fires, but that is not Sanborn's primary goal.
"Agricultural use is the most important use for our technology right now," Caldwell said.
Could the drones also be used to dust crops? Caldwell doesn't think so.
"It would depend on how much weight the drone could carry," he said. "The Leptron Avenger can carry up to 10 pounds and will still be able to reach the necessary height. The camera itself takes up most of that carry weight already."
He added, "Our company is primarily concerned with imaging."
The technology is practical, but will it see widespread use in Weld County?
The answer won't come until next year's Colorado Farm Show.