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Illinois Farmer: Drones Teach You A Lot In A Hurry

Fourth-generation family farmer Matt Boucher took his first unmanned aerial vehicle (what we might commonly refer to as a “drone”) out of its box last Christmas.

Farmers like Boucher see drones as the next popular tech tool for farmers. But the FAA says using drones for commercial use is illegal, until regulators figure out appropriate rules. While researching our recent story on the drone rules, we found that a bunch of farmers are itching to get their hands on aerial scouts. But what can a farmer actually learn using a personal drone? (Check out video from the scouting mission below)

Boucher has been running test flights over his frozen, snow-covered fields near Dwight, Ill., for months. Now that spring has finally arrived in the Midwest, he’s using the football-sized drone to get the first glimpse of his winter wheat.

“The cold has really affected it,” Boucher said after reviewing the footage. “We knew one field would be ‘iffy’, but by doing a fly-over with an unmanned system, you learn a lot in a hurry.”

Boucher took a gamble by adding 100 acres of wheat into his corn and soybean crop rotation. He planned to harvest the wheat, but the winter weather damage he observed from his airborne camera system now has him re-thinking that strategy. He’ll probably put corn on top of the frost-damaged wheat, using it as soil-boosting cover crop instead.

Why pay to go airborne?

“You get a whole different perspective,” said Boucher, adding that most farmers spend as much as an hour checking on the health of an 80-acre field. “I can do that in ten minutes, and get low enough to see problems, or simply know where I need to walk to.” 

Boucher justifies the $3,500 cost of the aerial vehicle by breaking it down per acre. 

“I’ve got close to 1,000 acres, so at roughly $3.50 an acre - just to fly the ground once - I think it’ll pay for itself in a year,” he said.

Put another way, inspecting all of his acreage on foot would take about 13 hours, according to Boucher’s calculations.

What else can you see with “eyes in the sky”?

Flying low over his fields, Boucher confirmed something he’d already suspected -- that some low-lying areas simply won’t produce without additional drainage.

“It’s really pushing us to get some tiling done,” Boucher said, “and it is making us think differently.” 

Nearby railroad tracks form a major obstacle. Boucher says he would have to run piping underneath the tracks to remove rainfall.

“Do your research”

Boucher has spent the past two years looking into unmanned aerial vehicles for him farm, and calls the product he purchased the “right fit for the money.” 

The “drone” market is starting to boom, with prices varying wildly. And they’re not cheap. Boucher advises fellow farmers considering using an unmanned vehicle to do their research and weigh the costs and benefits carefully.

Click here for more on ag drones on Boucher's blog

Scouting video

Peter has a diverse background in public, independent and commercial media production. Beginning in 2011, Peter served as reporter and “Morning Edition” host for WUIS. He completed his work at WUIS in 2014. Prior to his start in public radio, he covered the Illinois legislature for NBC affiliate WANDTV-17 and helped launch Phenom Features, a non-profit apprenticeship film studio. Peter hails from Oswego, Ill., where he grew up watching WTTW-11/PBS.