Drones and Tech on the Cutting Edge

Nelson doesn’t go down the road to argue or persuade those neighbors, but he said his crops do the talking.

“Some people might think I’m wasting my time, but when I used a drone to scout our fields this year for cover-crop planting, it 100% was not a waste,” he said. “I was able to purposefully draw where I was placing that canola for a grassy weed issue, and I captured every single spot of grass.”


That field has acted as a good proof of concept for Nelson.

It’s right across from the family home he shares with wife, Kara, and sons Davin, 5, and Callum, 3. Patches of Italian ryegrass taunted Nelson and his father all growing season, and when it came time to hit them the following spring, he ran a small experiment.

He and his dad had farmed the field and taken special notice of the grass. Surely, they’d be able to pinpoint the trouble spots, right? They gave it a shot, drawing maps of the grass as they recalled it before turning to the data gathered by aerial scouting drones, one of the tools that had turned neighbors skeptical.

“We missed 40% of it,” Nelson said. “Last year’s scouting is starting to help a lot. Now, some fields I have four years of data to go with.”

He’s seen payoff in his legume rotation, where he’s been able to drastically reduce his expenses for preemerge chemical because he knows exactly where he had problems the year prior.

“I’m starting to do custom applications for different preemergence,” he said. “Some of those chemicals are really expensive, and I’ll definitely spend the time with drone imagery to find where I can use chemical that costs a fifth or even a tenth as much on spots that don’t need the expensive chemical.”

Nelson loves the tech wizardry but strives not to be driven by it, consistently finding clever ways to recycle sensors and equipment he’s replacing while always looking for a tangible return on investment.

“I paid for my first drone in my first year,” he said. “After stitching together my scouting information, I saw I only had to spray 10% of the field with herbicide we were going to use. That right there was enough to pay for the drone.”


Scouting only accounts for one wing of the Nelson drone air force. He flies five drones. A DJI Mavic 2 Pro was his first and is somewhat retired, replaced by a pair of DJI Phantom 4 Pros, which have a camera more suited to scouting. Those are making a pass over every acre Nelson has at least once a season.

He also flies a DJI Matrice 300 RTK, a larger scouting drone. It carries a multispectral payload for more precise work. Last season, it mapped a garbanzo bean field ahead of a variable-rate burndown spraying, resulting in a 40% reduction in chemicals.

“It has high enough resolution it can see if there’s one plant alive,” Nelson said. “If something was mostly dead, I put less on, and I put the full rate on something fully green. It burned down very evenly.”

The pride of the Nelson air armada is the DJI Agras T16, an aerial sprayer drone capable of carrying a little more than 4 gallons currently. So far, the use has been real, albeit limited. He sprayed 20 acres made inaccessible for weeks by wet weather. He has the technical capability to support up to six autonomous aerial spraying drones at once, but government regulations prevent that for now.

If that were to change, he said he could almost leave his ground rig parked except to border his fields.

“If I could run six drones at once, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” he said.

The collection may grow, too. Nelson’s been eyeing a European company that’s designing an aerial drone that will use sound to chase animals out of crops. The idea would be to partner that technology with an AI-aided camera observing a field. When a herd of elk is detected — a big problem in the area — the drone could launch, drive the elk away and land to recharge.


It’s not all about aerial drones. Nelson is also exploring robots that work on the ground, inherently more efficient than something airborne. His wheeled sprayer is laden with sensors, as are his fields.

He’s laid down sensor packages throughout the land he works. Some are weather stations, recording wind, rain, temperature, humidity, soil moisture and soil temperature. All track CO2, “so we can better understand actual carbon sequestration in our fields,” he said.

They feed data back to his headquarters using TV white space, a way to broadcast internet connectivity over unused TV channels in rural areas.

All that effort put into technology hasn’t led to days on the beach for Nelson. In fact, he even balks at the idea it makes him a better farmer than the generations that came before.

“It’s not better. It’s just different,” Nelson said. “Farms have had to grow so much over the years, and we have more constraints on our labor now than we used to. A lot of the time, I’m finding technological solutions to do things the way my grandpa did it. farming 800 acres and was able to see all his land every day.

Nelson can’t drive by every acre of his 8,500 acres even once a week, but he has a camera in most fields, making a virtual drive-by possible every morning.

“I’m trying to take this large farm and shrink it down in size to make it manageable for someone to actually farm,” Nelson said. “It’s not that we’re doing it better. It’s that we’re taking what was done and it to more acres, which, unfortunately, we need to do these days.”



— Andrew Nelson documents his on-farm technology experiments and ideas online at www.FarmProven.tech

Joel Reichenberger can be reached at Joel.Reichenberger@dtn

Follow him on Twitter @JReichePF


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