Burton: Commercial agriculture might be largest beneficiary of UAVs

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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 (UAVs), which some people refer to as drones, may save farmers time and money with bird’s-eye views of farmland, says Bob Schultheis, a natural resource engineering specialist with University of Missouri Extension in Webster County.

Schultheis addressed the use of UAVs on the farm during the Greene County Soils and Crops Conference Tuesday at the Springfield Livestock Marketing Center.

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

UAVs can provide information to answer questions like “How bad was last night’s hailstorm? Are all of my cows on the north 40? Does my corn need more nitrogen?”

Most UAVs rely on GPS  for navigation. Entry-level systems can be guided by a hand-held remote control. More sophisticated vehicles can be programmed to fly designated routes using GPS and  geographic information system technology.

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