The High Plains Farm Credit Student Board is a collaborative effort between High Plains Farm Credit and Fort Hays State University.  Since 2019, FHSU Agricultural Business and Finance majors have the opportunity to apply to become one of eight members of the HPFC Student Board. Board members attend eight monthly meetings throughout the academic year at the Hays branch to learn about High Plains Farm Credit and the fundamental elements of agricultural lending. Student Board members are truly provided an opportunity that is second to none, with the opportunity to develop leadership skills, build a professional network, and learn from industry leaders.

Each year the Student Board is tasked with a research project. This year, the assignment was researching drone applications in agriculture. Drone technology is relatively young, and has many exciting current and potential uses in the agriculture industry. In our research, we interviewed several local drone operators, explored new applications for existing technology, and visited the drone lab at Fort Hays State University. We also researched the regulations involving drone use in agriculture, which continually appeared to be the largest barrier to local usage.

Megan Cranwell, Student Board Member
Megan Cranwell, Student Board of Directors

Drone Project Takeaways

Overall, the board had several key takeaways from the research. First, while the certification process is not particularly difficult in nature, it is certainly a time consuming and lengthy process. Since agricultural operators are considered by the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, to be using the drone for commercial purposes, there are considerably higher standards for certification than that for personal use. In all, the process to become a certified pilot could take over two months to complete. However, when a spray drone is involved, the process extends to six to twelve months and may require an attorney to complete. While these processes may seem daunting, the necessary materials are widely available in terms of online content and local resources.

Kacie Timmons, Student Board discusses the drone project.
Kacie Timmons discusses drone options.

Drone Equipment Costs

When many operators think of drones, the first concern is the cost of the equipment. Fortunately, a highly competitive industry has provided high quality hardware and software at relatively reasonable prices. Drone prices vary greatly depending on specifications. In the scope of our research, the drones ranged from $700 to $1,600 with an additional expense of the near infrared sensors costing $3,000 to $5,000.  Additionally, there are several technologies available on a subscription basis that collect and store field scans and maps in a cloud, automatically recording and storing information from a flight. While these costs may seem steep, it is important to evaluate what you would gain from such an investment of time and capital. A simple field scan with a near infrared sensor can glean data like field dead zones, elevation and drainage patterns, soil nutrient content, and plant biomass. Using the NDVI, or Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, operators can interpret the field maps and make necessary adjustments.

Talking With a Local Expert

At the FHSU drone lab, we were fortunate enough to visit with Dr. William Stark, who provided a wealth of knowledge on the topic. In his opinion, the biggest limiting factor on agricultural drone technology is not the cost of operating the drone or software, but rather the training and application of the data being collected. A single field scan offers a considerable amount of data, and when interpreted by you and your agronomist, can yield exponentially more educated decisions. Additionally, cloud technologies that store field scans year over year can provide an insight into long term trends, allowing for more sustainable and efficient farming practices.

Overall, the agricultural drone market is expected to grow from a $1.2 billion industry in 2020 to $5.7 billion in 2025. With that, it is important to realize that this technology is not only here to stay, but will likely comprise a growing part of farming operations in the near future.

The HPFC Student Board presents their drone project findings.
The HPFC Student Board presents at April board meeting as their FHSU advisors observe.

What’s Next for the Drone Market?

Overall, the agricultural drone market is expected to grow from a $1.2 billion industry in 2020 to $5.7 billion in 2025. With that, it is important to realize that this technology is not only here to stay, but will likely comprise a growing part of farming operations in the near future.

To view the entire presentation on drones, click here.