Farming is a time-consuming practice, particularly for livestock farmers, but the effort needed to care for and farm livestock could soon be mitigated with drone technology. Researchers at Virginia Tech recognise that agriculture is a major industry with excellent potential for the burgeoning field of drone tech applications. They are testing drone technology with sheep at their College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We are looking at ways drones can be used on small farms,” said Dan Swafford, project associate for Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Farms could use drones as a ‘check-on’ tool to ensure that sheep are where they are supposed to be”, he said.
Drones can provide farmers quick access to see if an animal is in need or injured, or to look if a ewe has delivered a new lamb, or just to check the status of the farm. Agriculture is one of the industries where drones will make a big impact in the coming years. Drone technology has various practical applications and could change the way farmers, including those with disabilities, manage livestock. A drone can cover the span of two football fields from a single aerial location saving precious time and resources.
Not only is a drone is lightweight and affordable the technology can also be used with ease. A hobby drone model that usually retails for approximately $500 comprises the technology a farmer would need. It connects to any tablet using a wireless internet connection. Most models take still photos and video. A drone is also easy to fly because of its simple controls and auto take-off and landing features.
Swafford teamed up with Andrew Weaver, a former graduate student in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science from Virginia Tech who is pursuing his doctorate at West Virginia University. Swafford and Weaver flew drones over crops and all types of livestock. A drone with a video camera was flown over a herd of sheep and their reaction was recorded at different positions overhead. Sheep were exposed to drones from 25 metres above to as close as 3 metres in decreasing intervals. “We kept a scoring system to see how flighty the sheep were.” Weaver said. “They learned that it was ok, and with regular flying they got used to it.” Swafford said. The inference was that sheep learned that a drone is just part of life. After being exposed to the machine several times, most of the animals did not appear to notice.
The next step is getting the technology into the hands of farmers. Swafford, is showing drones and the research to student 4-H members. He’s applying for grants that will allow students to take drones back to their family farms for testing. “We’re targeting farm youth,” he said. “They have an understanding of the practical nature of using drones with livestock, and they understand that it’s more than just cool technology.”
The goal of the agriculture drone is to make it easier for farmers to keep track of their animals and to attract more young farmers to the industry.