Drone Days with Dennis: An Interview with Extension’s Dennis Bowman

By Kate Gardiner, RORG Communications Manager

You’ve likely heard of drones, but have you ever seen one in action? I saw one for the first time last October when Dennis Bowman used it to capture 360 degree video of the Red Oak Rain Garden. And I must say it’s pretty cool.

N. Dennis Bowman is the Interim Assistant Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Illinois Extension. He is also a Certified Professional Agronomist and a licensed Commercial Unmanned Aerial System pilot. He has filmed the Red Oak Rain Garden three times: October 2019 as well as June and July 2020. I decided to ask him more about it!

First, a little about Dennis: he grew up on a small grain and livestock farm near Carlinville, Illinois in Macoupin County. He received his B.S. in 1981 from Western Illinois University (Ag. Sci.) and his M.S. from the University of Illinois in 1992 (Agronomy). He’s been employed with University of Illinois Extension since 1981, first serving as Assistant and Associate Ag. Adviser in Macoupin County, then as Ag. Adviser in DeWitt County. Since 1992, he has worked out of the regional Extension Centers in Decatur and Champaign. He is responsible for crop production programming and support in East Central Illinois.

How did you get interested in drones and what do you enjoy most about using them?

I spent two summers working for an agricultural consulting firm as a crop scout. It is a really fun job, especially for a future agronomist. I started early in the season when the crops were small and would walk the fields looking for problems in the corn and soybeans. However, when the corn starts tasseling and the soybeans are waist or chest high, the fun part disappears. I could no longer see as much of the field and worried that I might be missing something. Thirty years later, I heard about drones in agriculture. This was a great solution because the drones let you “see” the rest of the field.

Other than the fact that drones are just cool: In addition to working for University of Illinois Extension as Interim Assistant Dean and as an Extension Commercial Agriculture Educator, I am an amateur photographer. Drones give you a perspective that you can’t get from the ground whether it is a pretty landscape or a crop field.

Aerial photography by Dennis Bowman.

What kind of drone do you use? What do you usually use it for?

I have a variety of drones, several different sizes and camera/sensor options.  The primary drone for my agricultural research is a DJI Inspire 2 with a Micasense Altum sensor. The Altum sensor takes 6 pictures at one time, each image is of one specific wavelength of “light” (blue, green, red, red-edge, near infra-red, and thermal infra-red). All my drones are the multi-rotor, helicopter style. They can take off and land almost anywhere and are easy to keep within a defined boundary.

How does someone become a drone pilot? Do you need any certifications or licenses?

They are actually pretty easy to learn to fly, you just need some open space and patience. The exception is the really cheap drones because they lack the internal stabilization and controls needed to fly well.

As for the certifications, you don’t need one to fly drones recreationally, the drone just needs to be registered with the FAA. If you are using a drone as part of your job or business, then you must get a drone pilot certification from the FAA. There is an exam, but all the study materials are available for free online. If you don’t like self-study, there are classes available too.

Filming the Red Oak Rain Garden is a little different than filming cropland, right?

Yes, that’s right. For the garden, I had to fly manually and close to the ground, while being sure to avoid the limbs of the red oak and sycamore trees. I used my Inspire 2 drone and mounted a GoPro Fusion 360 camera onto it to get the 360 degree video.

When asked about the garden, he had nothing but nice things to say: I love the Red Oak Rain Garden, it has been amazing to see what was once a muddy sidewalk intersection transformed into a beautiful focal point. The growth this spring and summer has surpassed my expectations for the first year.

And finally, we’ve seen peeks of your backyard from video calls over the past few months. It looks beautiful, do you garden?

I try to have a pretty, but relatively low maintenance backyard. My backyard is dominated by two very large trees, a hackberry and a pin oak, and in this shade my plant choices are limited. I really appreciate the plant suggestions from the RORG experts. Grass is hard to maintain in the full shade, especially with Sasha running back and forth. [Kate’s note: Sasha is the Bowman family’s Great Pyrenees! We have seen her during some Zoom calls and she is a very good girl.]

Sasha is the Bowman family’s Great Pyrenees`!

Our team would like to give a huge thank you to Dennis for his efforts in documenting the Red Oak Rain Garden’s renovation and growth and in his role as Interim Assistant Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The Red Oak Rain Garden would not be what it is today without his support!

And now for the videos you’ve been waiting for!! First, we have the video from October 2019:

And now the video from July 2020:

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