Drones are already paying dividends to farmers with their ability to assist in planting and monitoring crops. But now, farmers are beginning to use these UAVs in off-season work as well.

The result has been an almost year-round potential to employ drones—and this gives farmers a superior return on their technology investments.

In areas like California and Texas, crops are growing year-round, though not all of them are intended to go to market.

“These crops are what you call ‘cover crops’,” says Kyle Miller, in-house agricultural expert at DroneDeploy, which provides drone and mapping software. “A farm will use a cover crop like rye in the winter, and then destroy the rye before planting a new crop in the spring. In this way, fertilizing organic matter gets deposited in the soil.”

During this off-season process, drones can be deployed to see where new seed needs to be added, or if there's enough water. Sub-surface drainage and elevation data can also be checked to ensure that field drainage tiles are in place and elevations are at correct levels before the next planting season.

“The drones allow for surface modeling and 3D mapping of land quickly, easily and cheaply,” Miller says. “They enable farmers to better manage field drainage, and also determine when to hire outside services to make improvements to their land.”

Not every farmer is using these drone monitoring techniques in the off-season, but a trend that is fast developing is farmers flying their own drones instead of contracting with an outside service.

Several factors are driving this do-it-yourself adoption. First, the cost of drones has fallen significantly. A single drone can now be obtained for under $1,000. Secondly, the FAA has made it easier for individuals to obtain drone operating licenses. “All you need to do is to travel to an FAA drone test site, pay $150 to take the test and pass,” Miller says.

Once the drone is in use in the off-season, however, drone flights can become a lot like fishing with its good days and bad.

“There might be days when you fly over your fields and find absolutely nothing of any import,” Miller says. “But then on the next day, you might find some small detail of interest that might uncover an entire area of field preparation or maintenance that you would have missed without your drone and that will have a profound impact on your crop yield.”

The best news for farmers with no formal training in the information technology behind the drone is that services are available that can assist farmers with analyzing the data that their drones collect. This speeds up the time to bottom-line results that can make a difference in crop yields, profits and risk management.

“We have a basic platform that provides artificial intelligence and analytics reports, and that also enables interfaces to other third party tools that can use the data,” Miller says. “This takes some of the data science work out of the hands of the farmer, so the farmers can focus on the farms.”

So, what's the best advice for farmers considering off-season use of drones?

#1 Focus on your operation, not the drone.

If your goal is ensuring the health of your fields for new revenue-generating crops by protecting elevations, growing cover crops, etc., drone technology should be adopted to meet those needs. In some cases, users get carried away with the drones and can drift away from their primary operational goals. Don't let this happen.

#2 Consider operating the drone yourself.

It costs money to hire outside drone operators. Now, new software and cheaper drones are making drone do-it-your-self operating a realistic objective.

#3 When it comes to data management, leave the work to an expert.

Data science—and the need to develop highly complex algorithms to analyze the data that drones collect—is tough for those who don't have the training. This is where it makes the most sense to hire an outside service, tell the service what you want to know and have them deliver the reports.