Environmental concerns

Specialist aims to help farmers learn about the potential uses of drones


For centuries, farmers have braved the elements to walk their land to check for problems ranging from wind damage and calving cows to pests and predators.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have potential to save farmers time and money with bird’s-eye views of farmland, according to Bill Wiebold, an MU Extension agronomy specialist. Drones open the door for endless possibilities for precision agriculture, he said.

Photo: a  quad-rotor drone hovers  in front of a corn field

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not allow drone use for commercial purposes. In 2012 though, Congress directed the FAA to grant unmanned aircraft access to U.S. skies by 2015. The FAA has released a “road map” for potential drone use.

When that happens, Wiebold will be ready to help farmers learn about and adopt the new technology to help them on the farm. Wiebold’s talks on drones during MU Extension crop conferences have drawn attention from producers anxious to learn about their potential uses.

Wiebold and other MU researchers have been studying how farmers can use the new technology. For example, farmers in Japan and Brazil have used drone technology for decades. As much as 30 percent of Japan’s rice fields were sprayed by unmanned aerial vehicles in 2010, according to the nonprofit Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

The uses are as varied as Missouri farmland, Wiebold said. Entomologists may find the devices especially helpful for directed scouting of pests. Drones could collect information on plants that have grown to heights that make it difficult to walk through narrow rows.


Wiebold’s talks on drones during MU Extension crop conferences have drawn attention from producers anxious to learn about their potential uses.


Additionally, farmers could use the unmanned devices to document conditions when applying for government programs such as crop insurance. They could also help with more day-to-day tasks, such as providing information to answer questions like “How bad was last night’s hail storm? Are all of my cows on the north 40? Does my corn need more nitrogen?”

Although recent media attention has centered on unmanned aircraft as a way to deliver packages, commercial agriculture will probably be the greatest beneficiary from broader use of drone technology, Wiebold said.

A study by the AUVSI estimated that drone use could create 70,000 new jobs in the U.S. in five years after FAA approval. The group also estimates that 90 percent of that economic activity will come from precision agriculture and public safety applications.

Drones suited for farm applications vary widely in cost and size. Entry-level aircraft cost $500 to $1,500 and can fly for 10 to 20 minutes without recharging batteries. Most weigh less than 5 pounds, have a wingspan of less than 3 feet and travel under 30 mph. For about $300, farmers could install a camera in a drone that sends still or video images to a smartphone.

Entry-level systems can be guided by a handheld remote control. More sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles can be programmed to fly designated routes using GPS and GIS technology, Wiebold said.


The Water Quality program and select campus faculty support extension regional specialists on the development and implementation of a proposed course on Cover Crop Management. More than 700 farmers applied for cost-share assistance through the NRCS to establish cover crops. This course will increase knowledge and understanding of the complexities of cover crop management to address environmental concerns and improve overall soil quality.