Drone technology takes off with Vermont farmers

Published: Jul. 26, 2017 at 4:12 PM EDT
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"You can look at pest control, drought damage, flood damage," said Mike Middleman, a water quality specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

The "Unmanned Aircraft Systems" team at UVM's Spatial Analysis Lab is giving a drone demo to a potential new partner, the state's Agency of Agriculture.

Drones can be preprogrammed with a flight path over farm fields using a GPS mapping computer.

"For this entire area, it's going to collect 3,000 images. And then when we get back to our lab, we'll stitch those all together," explained Jarrett Barbuto, a UAS pilot.

That "stitching" will result in a high-resolution image similar to what you'd see on Google Earth, except much more detailed. Multispectral and infrared cameras can be used to show soil moisture and crop health through 3-D renderings of the landscape. The view from above helps give a big picture of what's going on back on the ground, including identifying potential problem spots susceptible to erosion or water runoff. The state hopes valuable information like that will entice other farmers to voluntarily participate in their pilot project.

"Identifying those areas of landscape that you're losing sediment and nutrients is a win for the farmer monetarily, and also a win for the general public as far as the water quality benefits that the public receives from that," Middleman said.

It can be a valuable point of view for farmers, too.

"You're saving numerous amount of time, and a tremendous amount of money," said Joshua Blake of Blake Dairy Farm.

Blake is already using a drone of his own. But the 35-year farmer says despite all the plusses, he knows some of his colleagues won't be on board.

"Invasion of privacy, maybe? Humans don't like change. Some guys would probably be opposed to it but I'm all about technology," Blake said.

How the agency would use this new technology is still up in the air and there are no current plans to use them for regulation.

The department is now looking at what they gather from the drone demos before deciding whether they will fly forward or stay grounded.