MAZON – It’s about one foot in diameter, made from white plastic, propelled by four small blades and looks more like a children’s toy than a marvel of 21st century machinery.
Manufacturers have named it the “Phantom,” but local farmers Matt Boucher of Dwight and Dan Wilkinson of Mazon are calling it the next big thing in farming technology.
“Some people call it a toy. I call it a $3,500 tool,” Wilkinson said Thursday morning.
The Phantom is just one model of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – more commonly known as a drone – that will be hovering above a handful of Grundy County farm fields this summer.
The drones will be scouting crops, locating tile lines and providing thermal images of livestock – and saving farmers a lot of time and money in the process.
“It’s similar to the technology in the remote control airplanes you see at the mall,” Boucher said. “But of course, it’s way more advanced than that.”
The drone is a small helicopter-like vehicle that can be flown manually or preprogrammed to fly autonomously.
Attached to the bottom of Boucher’s drone is a small GoPro camera, secured to the Phantom by a gimbal, which balances the camera to prevent blurry photos and shaky video.
With the camera-equipped drone, Boucher can take high-quality video of his fields, allowing him to quickly assess crop performance and locate pest problems.
In about 20 minutes, a farmer can scout about 650 acres of farmland, a task that would take several hours by foot and cost $400 per hour by plane.
“We can do crop scouting very quickly and very efficiently, which means we can make decisions based on that data very quickly and efficiently,” Boucher said.
The Phantom also is equipped to gather thermal imaging that can be loaded to a tractor’s GPS system within 30 minutes of flying the field. With the data gathered by the drone, farmers can allocate fertilizers and resources more quickly and precisely, Boucher said.
Thermal imaging also will show the body temperatures of livestock within a few degrees so farmers can quickly tell if any animals are ill.
Wilkinson is the owner of local agricultural tile company, Precision Farm Drainage in Mazon, and said he will use his drone for finding and analyzing tile lines when he is constructing new drainage tiles.
Boucher and Wilkinson are some of the first local farmers to purchase the technology and will be putting the flying machines to work this summer.
Boucher is careful to use the term “UAV” –short for unmanned aerial vehicle – instead of “drone” because he is fully aware of the controversy surrounding the machines.
Weaponry drones used by the U.S. military have been widely criticized and talk of using drones domestically has sparked concerns as many people are uncomfortable with flying cameras roaming the skies.
“There is going to be privacy issues, and there is going to be trespassing issues,” Boucher said. “Right now, legally, we can only fly 400 feet high, and we have to stay within line of sight.”
In Illinois, as in many other states, drones cannot be flown commercially, meaning they cannot be used to make a profit.
This is frustrating to farmers like Wilkinson and Boucher who have their hearts set on opening crop scouting businesses.
But by 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration has promised to roll out detailed and consistent regulations regarding UAVs, but rules vary state by state in the meantime.
“As with any new technology – there’s good and there’s bad,” Boucher said. “I’ve talked to my neighbors, and they’re not concerned about me spying or anything. They all thought it was really neat.”
Boucher has crashed his drone a handful of times, but aside from a cracked propeller and a few scuffs, the Phantom has held together.
Still, a drone is not the most sturdy piece of farming equipment and there is always the risk of crashing the $3,500 gadget in a field only to have it crushed by a combine.
“If you have a drone, it’s going to happen,” he said. “Everyone is going to crash at least once.”
While there are new drone models being released every week, most – including the Phantom – are susceptible to damage from wind and rain.
Wilkinson said the Phantom and most other drone models he looked into are so easy to fly, crashing them is rare. The Phantom in particular has an auto-landing button in case the operator does not feel comfortable landing it.
“They’ve made them pretty idiot-proof,” Wilkinson said.
Aside from being imaging tools, Wilkinson said drones have “endless” functionality for farmers.
The thermal imaging can be used to scout out hazardous situations for rescuers or locate people lost or injured in the field.
Both Boucher and Wilkinson also are excited about using their drones as educational tools, taking and sharing video of daily farm operations to show non-farmers how a farm is run.
Since purchasing his drone in December, Boucher has shared several videos of his farm via social media.
Wilkinson said he plans to make a sentimental video of his farm for a family keepsake.
“These will save us money and time, but there’s so much more we can do with them,” Wilkinson said.