Kevin Falkenberg flies his newer of two drones. While the original drone cost nearly $20

Drones aim to change how farmers view crops, ranchers herd

Changes in technology – both in the creation of and the reduction of cost for technology – has had an impact on Canada's agriculture...

Changes in technology – both in the creation of and the reduction of cost for technology – has had an impact on Canada’s agriculture industry.

“We’ve seen the most amazing changes,” said doctor Stan Blade, Dean of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Alberta.

Most of the technological changes come in two fields, Blade said – in genome study and in management.

“Management – it sounds boring, but that’s where tech ideas come in,” Blade said. “In the case of crops, what can we do now that we couldn’t do 20-30 years ago? We can be much more careful about how we apply fertilizer. We can use a combine’s yield manager to see if areas aren’t producing as well. We can use drones to look for missing livestock or troubled areas.”

Research into the genes of fungi and diseases that affect crops have led to resistant or immune strains of crops, or ways to deal with fungal infections and other diseases.

One of the most promising technologies that could have major impact on farming without exorbitant cost is that of drone technology, Blade said.

“In the old days, farmers would walk the field” to check its condition,” Blade said. “It could take a couple of days. Now we can fly over it with drones. It takes a couple of hours.”

Stettler’s Kevin Falkenberg operates Hornet Aerial Imaging, named after the buzzing sound made by his drones as they take flight.

Falkenberg is licensed by Transport Canada to fly drones from BC to the Ontario border, with night-flying permission from Alberta and east.

Falkenberg became interested in drone technology after a friend at the RCMP had demonstrated the use of a drone to him. The drone didn’t have a built-in camera, but instead strapped in a dSLR camera which could be remotely triggered to take photos.

Falkenberg was stung at the first buzz, and went to Transport Canada to get his paperwork in order. A short time later – and $17,000 poorer – Falkenberg’s first drone took flight.

“I flew models (planes) since I was 15,” he said. He’s also a pilot. “It’s so cool to be able to do something you enjoy.”

The RCMP friend used his drone in accident reconstruction, but Falkenberg quickly saw there could be other commercial applications.

“It’s a rapidly growing field,” he said. His first drone, purchased at a cost of $17,000, didn’t have a built-in camera, no collision avoidance technology and no flying lights. His second drone has all of that (except the collision technology) and only cost $2,000.

“Prices are dropping,” Falkenberg said.

While anyone can fly a drone, to fly them commercially, a permit is required from Transport Canada. No matter whether drones are flown commercially or for recreation, there are also rules that must be followed. Falkenberg goes out of his way to educate hobbyists because he said it would only take one bad incident to ruin it for everyone.

“You can’t fly near airports – and that includes the hospital because it has a helicopter pad,” Falkenberg said.

Though much of Falkenberg’s drone work has been in real estate, he’s also taken photos of farming and ranching operations.

“Ranchers could use drones to inspect fences, find runaway livestock, or find injured animals lying in hollows,” he said. “Farmers can use drones to inspect crop quality from an eagle’s eye point of view.”

New programs are being developed all the time, ones that can use special filters attached to cameras to determine soil moisture, crop health, presence of certain pests or diseases, Falkenberg said. He’s taking part in a study right now, due to his permits with Transport Canada, to help design a type of technology that will determine moisture levels in soil.

“There’s still some small disconnects between the drone industry and the agricultural industry,” Falkenberg said. “But that’s changing as these programs are created.”

For the study, Falkenberg will fly his drone and note results, while a physical walk-through on the ground will confirm accuracy (or lack thereof).

While drone operators require a pilot’s licence in the United States, in Canada that’s not mandatory. However, to obtain the Transport Canada permit, there’s a lot of reading and a lot of forms to fill out – and general rules of air-flight is part of the study.

“As a pilot, I’d be very nervous to see a drone coming close to my plane,” he said. “So it’s valuable to me to have people understand the rules – so the rules don’t change and make drones inaccessible to a wide variety of people.”

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