Thanks to Agri Spray Drones Dr. Steve Li’s Research Is Being Impacted from the Ground Up

Thanks to Agri Spray Drones Dr. Steve Li’s Research Is Being Impacted from the Ground Up

Dr. Steve Li’s, associate professor at Auburn University's College of Agriculture, main focus has always been on herbicide weed control and pesticide application, but research really took off in 2020, when his program began examining spray drones, mapping drones and other drone-related projects. Today, with multiple units flying, they’re able to conduct research using both rotary atomizer and hydraulic nozzles. 

“We have progressed from drone rookies to drone experts to tackling more difficult workflows and also trying new application methods with the spray drones,” Li says. “And so far, it has been paying off really well for us, for our research projects.”

He and his team use drones for a variety of research projects and crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and peanuts, and Agri Spray Drones has been with them since the beginning. 

“Agri Spray Drones has been a great friend for my program,” says Li. “Their technical support is fantastic.”

Advantage: Overcoming Terrain & Climate

Based at Alabama’s Auburn University, Li believes drones are particularly applicable for the southern region’s smaller, odd-shaped fields, terrain changes and hilly areas, not to mention high humidity and extended rainfall periods that prevent ground rigs from entering fields. 

“For example, last year around this area along the Gulf at our experiment station, the weather station recorded 51 days of rain out of 60 days,” he says.

Using drones also removes some inherent issues with spray planes, he says, such as availability during crop dusting season, obstacles around fields and generally high costs.

Advantage: Flexibility & Low Cost of Entry

Li says the biggest advantage a spray drone has compared to other application methods or equipment is versatility. “You can use it for many different types of application, not tied to one crop or one type of cropping system, and also the entrance requirement is fairly low in terms of the investment on the equipment,” he says. “One full package of the large spray drone such as AGRAS T40 costs you one 10th of a ground sprayer, and airplane costs are several fold higher than that.”

As far as specific uses, Li says traditional fungicide application, especially in corn, holds great potential. 

“It has the largest acreage in all crops in the United States. It is difficult to spray when it gets big. And with new diseases becoming more and more prevalent in the U.S., spraying fungicide becomes very important to safeguard the yield,” he says. “The challenge has always been the size of the crop, which is not easy for a ground rig to spray without damaging the leaves. 

“That makes spray drones a great fit for the average farmer, particularly small farmers who have limited capital to purchase new equipment.”

Singular, Award-Winning Drone Research

Li has proven out drones’ potential through a research program that’s not only unique but stands alone in its importance to the agriculture industry. 

“My research has already helped producers and operators tremendously, because we are pretty much the only research program in the United States that I'm aware of to constantly produce educational material and trainings and research data to support drone field operations,” he says. 

So far, he and the team have studied application parameters, optimization and efficacy and evaluated multiple types of chemicals and applications.

In fact, Li received Alabama Farmer Federation Outstanding Researcher Award, which recognizes researchers who have made a significant impact on row crop production.

Giving Farmers Their Wings

But it’s Li’s training efforts that farmers and operators first appreciate – he has organized numerous operator trainings, spray drone conferences, Android user training and even core functions application training.

Drone interest among farmers is at an all-time high, he says, and farmers are very responsive to this new technology. Li constantly fields questions on how to begin using drones in production and retail operations, and says training and support are critical for successfully integrating drone technology into production operations. 

“Agri Spray Drones has provided fantastic support for the farmers,” he says. “Not only the technical support after people purchase the drone, but also in the initial purchasing process or even before the purchase starts to provide our growers with inside devices and overview of the FAA certificate application and also full-scale legal service.”

The company’s free training materials and videos on topics like optimization of flight routes, daily field operation, hardware management and more are key for farmers adopting drone technology he says. “Those mean a lot for all the operators in this industry,” he explains, “because these are free resources from a trustworthy source that everybody can rely on, from the largest agriculture drone dealer in the U.S.”

Training opportunities are still fairly rare, according to Li, which is why he’s working hard to develop training modules, and another reason why Agri Spray Drones’ free training materials are so critical. Li says his ultimate goal is to make all of his drone research data and training available through a single platform, hopefully by 2024. That way, operators and farmers from all over the world will be able to access it.


The Next Flight

In the meantime, new research continues. Li and his team are currently looking at precision spot spraying – testing software to precisely spot weed patches, then exporting the results as a prescription spray drones can use. 

“This initiative has gained a lot of interest from growers because instead of spraying the whole 30-acre field, we might only spray 10 to 15 acres, but hit 95% of the weeds,” he explains. 

In another project, Li is evaluating a new pesticide application method, spraying precisely in bands instead of broadcast across an entire field. This could be particularly valuable for crops like blueberries, wine grapes and muscadine. “I want to deliver the chemical to the crop band, and this way it will reduce off-target drift,” he says. “It will increase chemical use efficiency and also reduce the cost of chemicals, which translates into more savings for the growers.”

Li believes drones’ future in agriculture will only grow along with the industry as it feeds our growing population. “I foresee the technology will continue to evolve,” he says. “I believe we will get two drones swarming, which means one operator will be able to use one remote controller and operate multiple drones at the same time.”

He also envisions drones communicating with each other and the remote controller, as well as having every job synchronized to every drone in a grower or operator’s fleet, so any unit could do any job. 

The future, he says, is limited only to what we envision on the horizon.

You can find Li on Facebook, where he also runs a number of ag drone forums or email at

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