Taking Flight

Sep 05, 2023

Story and photos by Mark Johnson
When Wilbur and Orville Wright first broke the code of powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, it’s doubtful that they had the slightest inkling of the innovations their hard work would inspire within the next century — especially in agriculture.

Now only 120 years later, staff at Knox Farmers Cooperative are putting those innovations into practical use with a new agricultural drone service.

For most of us, the word “drone” evokes an image of a small, unmanned craft — about the size of your hand — flown by remote control to take aerial photos and videos. Combine that typical drone image with a traditional crop-dusting airplane or helicopter and you have a fairly accurate representation of Knox Farmers’ drone service.
Started only a few months ago, the Co-op now operates two DJI Agras T40 agricultural drones capable of spraying and spreading over ground previously unsuitable for aerial application. With a full crew standing by to quickly refill the 10-gallon tank and replace the battery, a single drone can spray around 50 acres per hour.

Co-op manager Lewis Jones says the service is a great solution for some of the problems presented by the hilly East Tennessee topography.

“In our area and across into the North Carolina mountains, it’s either difficult or impractical to use a helicopter or plane to spray fungicides,” Jones explains. “There’s just not enough acreage per farm for those [aerial services] to fool with, so there has been a need with our row-croppers and dairies for a way to apply fungicides, especially over hilly crop ground. These drones also solve the problem of spraying steep pastures where a ground-based rig just can’t go.”

Jones says that he and the Co-op’s agronomy manager, Kevin Martin, began studying the possibility of adding a drone service several years ago.

“We flew out to San Antonio in 2021 to look at some of the systems, but at that time, we didn’t feel that the technology and batteries were far enough along,” says Jones. “With the latest version of the T40 drones, the batteries and tanks had the capacity we needed, so we took the leap and bought the equipment last January.”
The drones themselves — the Co-op purchased two — were only part of the equation. The entire set-up also includes a one-ton pickup truck, a custom-built 29-foot trailer with a flat deck on top that serves as a landing pad and a high viewing spot for the pilot, a 500-gallon nurse tank and hoses, and a 24-kW generator for battery charging.

There was also the matter of pilot certification, a process that took several months for Martin and, later, Co-op employee Spencer Russell.

“To operate a drone over 55 pounds, the FAA [Federal Aviation Agency] requires you to basically have a pilot’s license,” Martin says. “You have to get a medical health card and take the same type of test that a private pilot would, even reading the gauges of an airplane. You’re also required to be certified as a state aerial applicator, commercial chemical applicator, and have your ground-application license. So clearly, they’re not going to allow just anyone to walk in off the street and start flying a drone.”

Jones says that while the up-front costs and pilot certifications are “nothing to sneeze at,” the results so far have been worth the effort.

“It was definitely a substantial investment, but we felt that it would be a real benefit to both our Co-op and, most importantly, our customers,” he says, noting that Knox Farmers has also contracted with several surrounding Co-ops. “It has actually turned out better than we expected.”

In only around three months, word-of-mouth marketing is keeping both drones busy applying fungicide to corn fields that would ordinarily be disqualified from being sprayed. One such location is the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center’s Little River Dairy Farm in Walland. Research supervisor Tate Walker says the ability to have fungicide applied to the center’s corn crop is a game-changer.

“Our corn is down in a river bottom where we’re surrounded by water on three sides,” Walker says. “Because of that, we’re always planting late due to the simple fact that we have to allow time for the bottoms to dry up. The few times we tried to apply fungicide with a ground rig, we didn’t feel like we were getting enough bang for our buck because we had to spray so early, which felt like throwing $100 bills out the window and hoping a few of them suck back in. Now, with the option of applying fungicide with the drone, all the documentation shows that we should expect to get one to two more tons per acre, and three quarters of a ton should pay for both the product and the application.”

He adds that the absence of southern rust on the corn will create silage that is more digestible for his 200-head herd of dairy cows.

“We always get southern rust on our corn, just because it’s planted so late and there is always a lot of moisture hanging around in this valley,” Walker explains. “There’s just no way around it. But without the rust, the corn stays greener longer, is more digestible, and equals more milk in the tank. Until this drone service became available, we simply had no way to deal with it.”

Not only is the drone able to apply product where other methods cannot, it’s also at least as effective — if not more — due to practical and technological advantages. The practical advantage is in the downward circulation of the rotor blades, which distributes the spray droplets past the canopy and into the interior of the crop. An airplane, on the other hand, dumps the fungicide and relies on drift to distribute it, while a helicopter’s downward pressure is often too strong and can potentially blow the product out of the crop.

Technologically, the connection between the drone and the operator’s handheld remote allows for droplet size to be changed mid-flight, if needed, from 100 to 500 microns. Also, each field is GPS-mapped prior to spraying, and the drone essentially flies on autopilot, following a pre-set grid pattern.

Even with all these advancements, Jones points out that the drones are not a replacement for ground-based rigs and traditional crop-dusting.

“It’s fairly pricey to enter this space, and it is labor intensive,” he says. “You’ve got to not only have a licensed pilot flying it, but also another pilot standing by who can take over at a moment’s notice, per FAA requirements. Other staff is needed to handle the batteries and chemicals — it takes a team of people. But you’d be amazed at how many inquiries we’ve gotten over the past couple of months about not only applying fungicide to row crops, but also seeding clover on pastures and spraying fruit trees and specialty crops like pumpkins. I really think this service will become a great addition for the farmers of East Tennessee.”

For more information about Knox Farmers Cooperative’s drone service, call the Co-op at 865-922-2115. To find the Co-op nearest you visit www.ourcoop.com/locations. 

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