(The Center Square) – Agricultural drones are multiplying in Illinois.
In the past 3 years, Hylio, the Texas drone manufacturer, has sold hundreds of drones to Illinois farmers for crop spraying, CEO Arthur Erickson said. The precision that drones bring to the process of applying fertilizers and chemicals is winning over more corn and soybean farmers every day, he said.
“This isn’t 10 years in the future. This is right now. Farmers really like the success they are seeing and the return on investment that they get with drones,” Erickson told The Center Square.
In 2019 and 2020, larger drones – drones with 10-foot wingspans that can carry heavy payloads – hit the Illinois market. Farmers liked what they saw.
“Since then, it’s just been gangbusters,” Erickson said.
When it comes to input delivery, drones offer more functionality at a much-reduced cost, he said.
“I won’t say that they are a silver bullet for every issue that a farmer or a service provider in the ag industry runs into, but they cover a lot of bases,” Erickson said.
As for capital costs and operating costs, drones are impressive.
“It’s pretty obvious from the money standpoint, why a farmer might decide to go with drones,” Erickson said.
A traditional ground rig with a high clearance sprayer costs half a million dollars. Drones cost considerably less. They also they give farmers more functionality. For example, a traditional ground rig delivers two or three gallons of chemicals per acre. A farmer uses that machinery to treat 500 to 600 acres in a day. Drones can do the same job at significantly less cost.
“Three of our drones can do a similar job for $150,000 total – a 60% cost reduction in capital costs,” Erickson said.
Traditional machinery also costs more to operate and maintain, he said.
“Operating costs for drones are significantly lower – probably 30% of what a farmer would pay to operate the ground rig on a monthly or yearly basis.”
The larger ones have a 10-foot wingspan. People wonder how they can do the work of a huge piece of machinery.
“These drones are surprisingly efficient. I am proud to say that our drones can regularly treat hundreds of acres per day – each. When there are three or four of them out there in the field together, they can treat close to 1,000 acres per day, on a good day,” Erickson said.
Not only are they cheaper, drones allow farmers to do more. When it’s raining or muddy, a traditional ground rig sits idle.
“Oftentimes, that is when a farmer needs to get out there the most, to treat for things like fungal diseases or insects that grow in that moisture,” Erickson said.
Drones can work when tractors can’t.
“They fly over the crop,” Erickson said. “They don’t care what the terrain is doing.”
Illinois farmers have been using drones to scout their crops for years now. Farmers scan the emerging corn or soybeans plants to get a population count. Drones allow farmers to pick up on weed patches and look for blight. Drone scouting allows farmers to see how effectively herbicides and fungicides are working to treat problems.
“Farmers can make smarter decisions about how much chemical to apply and when and how to apply,” Erickson said.
Drones apply chemicals with more precision, saving farmers money. They also cut down on over spraying and drift, he said.