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Know aerial-vehicle costs pre-decision
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Know aerial-vehicle costs pre-decision

Unmanned-aerial vehicles can help farmers in practical ways. But because there are various costs involved, farmers should determine how an unmanned-aerial vehicle might fit into farm-management strategies, says John Scott, Purdue University-Extension digital-agriculture coordinator.

One farmer may want to use an unmanned-aerial vehicle for crop scouting while another may want a vehicle with the ability to spray an herbicide or insecticide. Some systems have the capability of spreading fertilizer or seed. A livestock producer could use an unmanned-system to compare different forages in paddocks. Another might use it to market his or her herd. It can be used to help with responsible-farming practices.

A farmer can purchase a system, or ask an agricultural retailer or seed representative to do the flying and data analyses. Unmanned-aerial vehicles are available in fixed-wing and multi-rotor versions. They range in cost from $500 to $10,000, with most costing $1,500 to $3,000, Scott said.

And there are associated costs. To use an unmanned-aerial vehicle a person must first pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 Remote Pilot test to earn certification. Purdue University-Extension and other universities offer unmanned-aerial-vehicle training, which helps students prepare for the test.

“It’s a 60-question multiple-choice test,” Scott said. “If you answer 70 percent or more of the questions correctly, you can earn certification.”

The initial test costs $160. A remote pilot must recertify every two years by taking an online continuing-education course, but there’s no recertification fee.

An unmanned-aerial vehicle must be registered, after which the owner will receive a registration number for the vehicle. The $5 registration per vehicle is valid for three years.

Cameras can represent a much larger cost. Cameras for Normalized Difference Vegetation Index application can cost as much as $8,000, he said. Other multispectral cameras and sensors are available at a variety of prices. One can compare costs online or at national retail stores. Many farmers purchase systems through agricultural retailers or seed dealers.

An unmanned-aerial vehicle is usually sold with a battery, but one might want to purchase extra batteries and other supplies. Ask about a battery’s life and how many acres it can cover per flight.

Another cost to consider is liability insurance. The remote-pilot in command is liable for any damages, Scott said.

There can be data-storage costs. Images taken by unmanned-aerial vehicles generate large files that will quickly fill data storage. Extra hard drives or use of a cloud-based platform might be needed.

When all costs are tallied the amount one might expect to pay for an unmanned-aerial system would average $4,655 plus insurance, Scott said.

There can be manual flights and planned flights.

Manual flights don’t require additional software. A farmer could fly an unmanned-aerial vehicle over a 50-acre field and have useful imagery in as quickly as 24 seconds.

“It would be great for crop scouting,” he said. “You couldn’t walk that 50-acre field in 24 seconds.”

The imagery might show slight discoloration in a soybean field, for example. That might prompt the operator to fly the vehicle closer to the spot, where he or she might see a weed escape. The farmer then could use a geo-referencing point to spot-treat the area before weeds go to seed.

Planned flights – in which maps are made – would require additional software, he said. In a planned flight the unmanned-aerial vehicle take specified images along a pre-set path; it then automatically returns to the home destination. A farmer could map a field with stitching software to generate data associated with geographic coordinates. After stitching an image of a field, the farmer could target areas of concern.

The Visible Atmospherically Resistant Index was designed to work with red, green and blue data rather than near-infrared data. It’s a measure of “how green” an image is. The index isn’t intended as a substitute for a near-infrared camera, but it’s meaningful when working with non-normalized difference-vegetation-index imagery, according to DroneDeploy.

“Normalized difference vegetation index imagery” is a method of determining crop health by measuring the index of plant greenness. It’s calculated on a per-pixel basis as the normalized difference between the red and near-infrared bands of an image, according to Sentera.

Scott discussed practical applications for unmanned aerial vehicles as part of Purdue University’s “Data Driven Agriculture” webinar series. Visit -- search for "UAVs" -- or -- search for "practical applications for UAVs" -- for more information. 

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin. 

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