Purchase photos

Ag-citing adventure

10/3/2013

By KALEY CONNER

kconner@dailynews.net

Brynae Thompson likely is familiar with many types of agriculture equipment, considering she grew up on a farm near Paradise.

But she never had seen anything like this. With a countdown from five, a small, single-wing aircraft took off with a buzz, rapidly climbing higher in the clear blue sky.

The device circled a section of Fort Hays State University's farmland, producing high-resolution images of the crops from several hundred feet above the ground.

"I think this is really neat future technology," Thompson said. "We'll get a lot of use out of it. It will be very beneficial to farmers."

The aircraft -- a pre-production model from a company called AgEagle -- can be controlled from a laptop computer or a hand-held device.

The company's founders were in Hays on Tuesday morning to give a demonstration of the up-and-coming technology to a group of FHSU students and instructors.

The aerial imaging system was developed in conjunction with Kansas State University researchers and also draws on technical advancements made around the globe, said Bret Chilcott with Neodesha-based AgEagle.

"Everything they've learned they're transferring to us to turn into an industry," Chilcott said of K-State. "We hope to put Kansas on the map to be a leader in robotic aircraft for agronomy work."

The three-dimensional crop images can help agronomists identify factors that could hinder productivity. The detailed photographs can distinguish between different plant varieties and healthy and unhealthy crop sections. The camera even can zoom in enough to show close-up images of single leaves.

As an example, Chilcott displayed an aerial photo taken of a Kansas farmer's crops. Healthy crops were a bright green and yellow, while red and purple indicated deficiencies. The image also showed several dark gaps in the middle of the field, which helped the farmer realize his planter was malfunctioning and not covering the whole field with seed.

It also can help farmers pinpoint which areas of the crop might require more pesticide, rather than spreading chemicals over the entire field, he said.

"It doesn't matter what the cost is, but the payback's what's important," Chilcott said. "What's it going to pay back to the farmer? So if he can decrease the amount of chemicals and increase his yield, this could potentially pay for itself in a season."

The cost of the equipment is approximately $12,000. Production of the aircraft is expected to begin in earnest early next year, though the company is taking orders now.

The aircraft can be purchased and operated by the landowner, but federal restrictions prohibit agronomists from leasing the service to farmers. The technology has been met with a warm reception thus far, said Tom Nichol of AgEagle.

"Instead of being reactive, you're being proactive," he said. "Instead of waiting for problems to show up, you're trying to catch it beforehand."

Craig Smith, an assistant agriculture business professor at FHSU, said he was thankful for the chance to introduce students to the new technology, which someday could become commonplace in the crop consulting industry.

"I think there's definitely some potential in the crop consulting area, just the ability to scout a field, scout it quickly and get results in a relatively timely manner," he said. "I think there's a lot of potential."