Drone-Friendly Arkansas Looks to Expand UAV Use in Agriculture

Arkansas was tied for second in 2022 on the Virgina-based Mercatus Center’s annual scorecard of US states most ready to promote drone commerce.  This year the state jumped twenty points to #1, joining four other states that have established an executive-level task force to promote drone industrial development.

The Bear State’s latest surge is hardly surprising. Arkansas is already a leader in the use of drones in two expanding niches:  retail delivery – Walmart, which has its headquarters in Little Rock, is rapidly expanding its “last mile” drone deliveries at 11 store outlets to encompass the entire state – and law enforcement, with more than three dozen Arkansas police and fire departments deploying UAVs in a wide range of missions, from criminal pursuit search and rescue.

But the biggest drone growth sector in Arkansas may well lie elsewhere.  In agriculture.  Farming adds more than $20 billion annually to Arkansas’ economy, making it the state’s leading industry.  And the state’s 14 million acres of farm land  include the nation’s largest acreage in cotton, cottonseed and rice.  Arkansas is also top-ranked in corn and soybeans, much of it destined for livestock feed.  Overall, the state ranks fourth nationally – after farming powerhouses like California and Texas – in terms of crop yield per acre.

But with growing foreign competition as well as persistent threats from invasive pests and plant diseases, Arkansas farmers aren’t resting easy.  In fact, they’re looking for new ways to protect their crops and maximize their yields. And drones could well be the answer.

The use of drones for “precision” agriculture – the efficient targeting of seeds, fertilizer and pesticides to the most fertile and lucrative areas of a farm – is a well-established mission, with other leading agricultural states like Iowa and North Dakota already pioneers in the field.  But Arkansas is about to catch up.

Last July, researchers from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, including Dr, Aurelie Poncet, who heads the division, welcomed 70 attendees at its annual Corn Field Day to hear presentations on the many documented benefits of drones.  For many farmers in attendance, it was their first exposure to the topic.

Poncet and her team demonstrated how farm drones equipped with zoom cameras could map an entire field in a matter of minutes, reducing the need for expensive field surveys.  Equipped with special sensors, drones could also determine which areas of a field were nitrogen deficient or suffered from plant stress and disease, ensuring that fertilizers and pesticides were applied in the most targeted fashion, minimizing waste in input use and maximizing farm yields.

“This is meant to complement tissue sampling, not replace it,” Aurelie Poncet, assistant professor of precision agriculture for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, told the attendees.  “With this technology, you will be able to fly drones over your fields once or twice a week and prioritize sampling when you see potential issues.”

Not all those in attendance came away convinced that drones were the answer.  For some, the main issue is cost.  Drones that can make a real difference are still expensive.  And the expense of hiring someone to fly them and collect and process all the visual data seemed prohibitive.  Mank farmers in Arkansas, like farmers everywhere, still rely on tractors, horses and crop dusters for farm management.  They still need to become convinced that sophisticated new technology – especially robots –  can work for them.  Drones, especially, strike some farming traditionalists as science fiction.

Poncet’s colleague, Dr. Jason Davis, who first started flying UAVs for the University’s Agricultural Division back in 2014, acknowledges the need for  improvements in farm drone data processing.  Last year, the Division hired him to research the latest sensor-imaging and data analysis systems to ensure that the tens of thousands of images collected by farm drones could be exploited to the fullest — and in real-time to maximize their utility at key stages in the farm season

“It’s one thing to fly a drone. It’s another to have a decision model that will help you act on the information you’ve gained,” Davis says.  He and Poncet are preparing to present two in-service training seminars for agricultural extension agents later this month.   Their aim, he says, is to formalize agent training in the use of drone and satellite imagery to ensure that all of the collected drone data is fully exploited and utilized to maximize farm yields.

“A lot of these technologies are difficult to access and may require the right computer or specialized software to manage them correctly,” Davis says. “These specifications often make it difficult to incorporate these technologies into production systems.  I’m trying to bridge the gap and make some of these technologies more accessible and practical to agents, consultants and producers alike.”

Davis says the scope of precision agriculture actually goes far beyond the optimal management of expensive farm inputs to maximize crop yields.  “There is a plethora of crop-sensing capabilities and analysis, including weed detection, vegetative health, bees analysis, tracking of livestock and wildlife, irrigation efficiencies and forestry analysis,” he notes.  But many of these more sophisticated applications are still in need of additional research and development, he adds.

Davis and Poncet say it may take a good 5-7 years before their investments in new technology and industry outreach start to pay off.   While some leading farm machinery companies, including John Deere, have embraced precision agriculture, even basic mapping drones are not yet in wide use among Arkansas farmers.  Still, thanks to their efforts, a firm foundation for a fully-developed niche in agriculture is now being laid, which will continue to catapult the state to the forefront of the nation’s drone industry.

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