EAST PEORIA — Blake Lehman and Pete Fandel spent time over the past several months helping agriculture students at Illinois Central College learn about a farm tool that may soon take its place alongside tractors, harvesters and sprayers.
"The drone will be as common as a tractor for farmers one day," said Lehman, an ICC instructor who, along with Fandel, taught the first ICC class on the agricultural use of drones this summer.
The high-flying summer class sets the stage for a state-approved, two-year degree program on precision agriculture that kicks off this fall, he said.
With the use of drones to scout farm fields increasing across the country in recent years, the feeling was that drone use warranted instruction on the use of software along with the creation of flight plans, said Lehman.
Fandel, the former University of Illinois Extension advisor who's been an ICC ag professor for the past eight years, noted that one of the aspects of the class was to show students how to establish a flight plan using specific field dimensions. "When the drone can follow its own (programmed) path, no controlling is necessary," he said.
While drone use in countries like Japan includes larger models that actually spray fields, U.S. drones primarily serve farmers with cameras, said Fandel.
"There are regular cameras that can identify problems in the field and thermal cameras that can call attention to hot spots," he said.
Dennis Bowman, a U of I Extension educator, credited drones with providing a view from above that can be particularly valuable to farmers. "(Drones) give us almost instant access to a perspective on our crops that we didn't have before," he noted.
"For now, the primary implements (drones) are using are cameras, but in the future we may see other attachments, like sprayers," added Bowman.
With an eye in the sky, Lehman said that farmers now use drones for a number of functions. "They can be used to track crop population. They can also fly over an area to see which fields are ready (for spraying or harvesting)," he said.
Drones can identify a farm’s tiling system when drainage lines are in plain view or show wet spots that may turn up in a field following a storm, said Lehman.
The use of drones, meanwhile, is growing worldwide. San Francisco-based DroneDeploy estimates that the company has recorded 30 million acres of aerial data to date. The fastest growing adopters of commercial aerial data are construction, agricultural and mining industries, the firm noted on its website.
Corn fields represent the biggest single crop when it comes to drone use across the country, DroneDeploy stated.
The campus corn fields on ICC's East Peoria location make the school an ideal place to learn about drone use in agriculture, said Lehman, noting that he and Fandel spent much of the summer outside with students, demonstrating the technology.
It was a common site this summer to see drones flying over the ICC campus, he said. "We even had a request from another ICC faculty member to develop a 3D model of the campus," said Lehman.
The drones being demonstrated to students weren't toys, said Fandel. One of the drone models, the Phanton 4, costs $1,500, while the accompanying software package costs another $1,000. "The technology keeps on improving," he added.
Drone use remains closely regulated by the government, said Fandel. "You're restricted to the farm fields and you have to be able to see the drone at all times. The maximum flying height is 400 feet," he said.
While farmers, themselves, are being trained as licensed drone operators, most start by hiring someone to fly over their fields, said Lehman.
Both instructors look for more drone classes in the future.
Steve Tarter covers city and local government for the Journal Star. Reach him at 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTarter and on facebook.com/tartersource.