Eyes in the skies

Drones are the latest idea to improve farm productivity

  • Adam Cairns | DISPATCH PHOTOS
    Matt McCrink, a doctoral student at Ohio State University in mechanical and aerospace engineering, demonstrates his drone made out of carbon fiber, designed to help monitor crops in farm fields.
  • From left, Matt Gibson of Midland and Tony Panetta of Lynchburg look over a Precision Drone demonstrated by Matt Minnes, the company’s co-owner. The unit sells for $17,500.
  • Adam Cairns | DISPATCH
    All eyes at the Farm Science Review are on the sky during a demonstration of a drone.

September 19, 2013

LONDON, Ohio — Farmers who looked up at this year’s Farm Science Review got a peek at their future.

Ohio State University doctoral student Matt McCrink, who studies mechanical and aerospace engineering, demonstrated his dissertation project — an unmanned aerial vehicle, better known as a drone. Farmers one day could use drones to scout their fields or spray pesticides.

Data collected by agricultural drones will contribute to precision agriculture, the practice of observing, measuring and responding to crop variability. Today, farmers collect data with combines and other technologies, which log crop yields and characteristics, such as moisture content.

The data help farmers figure out which parts of their fields need more fertilizer or less water so they can be more productive. In the future, this productivity could help solve problems such as world hunger.

“The idea is to build up a technical base and develop robust methods for operating (drones),” said McCrink, whose work will help the Federal Aviation Administration as it develops regulations for commercial operation of agricultural drones.

At the moment, farmers can’t hire somebody to “drone” their fields. They can, however, buy drone systems for use on their farms, said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro. Years from now, after FAA regulations are in place, companies such as Precision Drone of central Indiana could offer field scouting and other services on a commercial basis.

While McCrink’s drone looks much like an airplane, Precision Drone’s devices look more like helicopters.

Aaron Sheller and Matt Minnes, founders of Precision Drone, demonstrated their PaceSetter system at OSU’s farm show on Tuesday. PaceSetter, a hexagonal drone with six propellers, can hover over fields and transmit real-time video to a computer tablet, among other tasks. The system costs $17,500, Sheller said.

Besides keeping an eye on crops, drones can collect data that help farmers better manage their expenses, said Tom Sloma, vice president of crop insurance at Farm Credit Mid-America, a farm loan, lease and crop insurance cooperative in Louisville, Ky., and Farm Science Review exhibitor.

Farmers are using data not only to manage their yields but to manage costs for inputs, such as seeds, “on an inch-by-inch level on a farm, versus what we did only a few years ago,” Sloma said. “The more data we have, the more educated decisions we can make.”

The university’s annual agriculture show runs through today at Molly Caren Agricultural Center near London. More than 100,000 visitors to the three-day event were offered the chance to learn about harvesting corn, tilling soil, beekeeping, small-scale poultry production, cover crops and manure use, among dozens of topics.

“Ohio is truly an exceptional place to be engaged in agriculture,” Bruce McPheron, dean of the university’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, told hundreds attending a luncheon on Tuesday.

One of McPheron’s challenges is finding innovative ways to pay for research to solve problems, such as food insecurity and water quality, during a time of shrinking state budgets and federal grant-making.

Working with industry is one way to boost research funding, but that comes with its own challenges, namely, the perception that corporations own the agricultural research.

“We have a lot of checks and balances in place” to prevent research findings that are biased by corporate dollars, McPheron said. “We are even more studious about how we approach research when we’re working with the private sector.”


Agriculture is Ohio’s foundation, Gov John Kasich told the luncheon crowd, citing its 78,000 farms and thousands of food processors that with other agribusinesses generated an economic output of $105 billion in 2010.

“One out of every seven jobs is ag-related,” he said. “I think we sometimes take agriculture for granted the same way we take gravity for granted.”