Bringing drones to farmers

Jason de Koff gets his DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone ready for the workshop.

New farming methods involving drones are gaining popularity across Tennessee.

Jason de Koff, associate professor at Tennessee State University, leads the effort by teaching drone workshops targeted at farmers in various counties. He visited Loudon County on Feb. 4.

Workshops include hands-on experiences with drone flying, information about the applications of drones on farms and laws for drone use.

“We got a grant in 2018, so that was to basically pay for the drones and then for all the things related to the classes that we’re going to be doing, the workshops,” de Koff said.

John Goddard, University of Tennessee Extension agent, helped organize the workshop. He said he wants to help “struggling farmers.”

”I mean, all of our farmers are on really tight budgets, and maybe show them a way that they can increase productivity and cut costs,” Goddard said. “... Periodically, we’ll have calving season, so we try to get our cows to organize a group to have all the calves born in, say 60 days. So in that two months time, you can send a drone out there to check on the cows every morning and every night you know as they’re getting close to calving.

“Then another great advantage would be for crops,” he added. “You know, if there’s disease, you can’t always, when the crop gets so tall, like corn for example, you know, you can’t really see through the field, but if you can fly over the top of it you can see where the disease issues are. They’ve come out with some fungicides and insecticides where you can just spot-treat instead of treating an entire field. You can just fly that drone over to this one little spot.”

Drones have gained popularity in the farming community.

“The farmers have figured out some ways to save themselves some steps and make their lives a lot easier and more productive,” Goddard said.

Lonnie Strunk, who attended the workshop, said that he was interested in the applications of drones but was “more curious than anything else.”

The drone that de Koff brought to the workshop, the Phantom 4 Pro, features a camera, GPS and proximity sensors. The camera can record video and capture photos. GPS allows the drone to automatically find its point of lift-off if it flies too far out of range or the battery gets too low. The proximity sensors prevent the drone from flying into walls and other obstacles.

“The main thing you might have to replace are the propellers, because, obviously, they’re made of plastic,” de Koff said. “So, if you hit something, they’ll be the first thing to go. Otherwise, as long as you’re not crashing it from a really, you know, high altitude, there’s not a whole lot of maintenance involved.”

A person must take a test to obtain a drone-flying license, de Koff said.

”It’s like a 60 questions multiple choice test, and it relates to the regular pilot’s license, like the one where you can fly big planes, but it’s basically pared down so it doesn’t have as much information that you have to know,” he said.