DR MICHAEL STAREK assistant professor of geospatial surveying engineering at Texas AampMCorpus Christi holds a  Sensefly eBee UAV the type to be used in agricultural research at the Texas AampM AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi

DR. MICHAEL STAREK, assistant professor of geospatial surveying engineering at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, holds a Sensefly eBee UAV, the type to be used in agricultural research at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi.

UAVs transition to agriculture from military technology

Adding drones to the concept of precision agriculture opens up a host of opportunities.

The list is fairly long and includes such items as freeze drying, microwaves, duct tape, computers, the EpiPen, and cargo pants—technology developed by the military and now available in almost every household.

World War II gave us the Jeep, which has spawned several generations of off-road vehicles that are now as luxurious—and as expensive—as top-of-the-line automobiles.

UAVs, drones, if you will, may soon follow the trend of beating swords into plowshares for peacetime use. In the not too distant future one can imagine an unmanned aircraft skimming over cotton fields, clicking away with on-board cameras, sending images to office computers or to smartphones in farmers’ blue jeans pockets.

Global Positioning System technology identifies the exact location of each image, providing the farm manager with real-time information on crop health.

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“We expect about 80 percent of commercial UAV use in the United States to be in agriculture,” says Jamey Jacobs, mechanical and aerospace engineer at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. He’s conducting research in effective, economical opportunities for UAV use in commercial settings.

Adding drones to the concept of precision agriculture opens up a host of opportunities. “With precision agriculture, we increase the precision. We now use satellite data with normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) images, but we have issues with resolution and timeliness of the data.”

Cloud cover and satellite position sometimes affect accuracy or availability of information. “With a UAV, we fly at low altitude over the field with GPS guidance.” On-board imaging allows managers to judge crop health (in real time) and make evaluations they can use for management decisions.

Actionable intelligence

“The UAV provides actionable intelligence,” Jacobs says. “For instance, a producer can find wheat rust and determine if he needs to spray a patch to stop its spread or treat the entire field.”

Producers will be able to identify weeds, insects and diseases in the field, know exactly where they are located and determine how best to deal with them.

Jacob’s commercial UAV research got started with a weather app for agriculture. “We started developing the system for forecasts and to create better models.”

Texas A&M AgriLife Research also is evaluating UAV use after receiving the state’s first permit to use drones at the Research and Extension Center in Corpus Christi.

“This represents another excellent opportunity for us to continue conducting cutting-edge agricultural research,” says Juan Landivar, director at the AgriLife Research Corpus Christi center. “After submitting an application and undergoing an extensive review process by the Federal Aviation Administration, we were issued a permit to conduct research on in-flight operations for precision agriculture. This technology will eventually improve agriculture and, in addition, could bring an entirely new remote-sensing, multi-million dollar industry to Texas.”

First up will be a fixed-wing lightweight platform called a Sensefly eBee, says Michael Starek, assistant professor of geospatial surveying engineering at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Crop scouting

“This technology has huge potential. Such systems can be equipped with specialized cameras to precisely map where crops are stressed, assess moisture conditions, image 3-D plant structure, detect pest infiltration, and potentially determine early on where crops are diseased. Compared to traditional aircraft or satellites, UAVs provide the capability to scout crops at a fraction of the cost and at spatial and temporal scales previously unattainable.”

Current FAA regulations prohibit flying unmanned aircraft systems for commercial purposes. The permit that A&M-Corpus Christi and AgriLife Research received is specific to their roles as state agencies and does not pertain to commercial uses.

Potential new regulations that would open up possibilities are under review by the FAA. A recent FAA report indicates the agency “has proposed a framework of regulations that would allow routine use of certain small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in today's aviation system, while maintaining flexibility to accommodate future technological innovations. The FAA proposal offers safety rules for small UAS (under 55 pounds) conducting non-recreational operations. The rule would limit flights to daylight and visual-line-of-sight operations. It also addresses height restrictions, operator certification, optional use of a visual observer, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits.

“The new rules would not apply to model aircraft. However, model aircraft operators must continue to satisfy all of the criteria specified in Sec. 336 of Public Law 112-95, including the stipulation that they be operated only for hobby or recreational purposes.”

Technology in place

Even as regulations are pending, the technology for growers is in place while researchers iron out the wrinkles. Starek expects to encounter challenges with effective operation and processing data to make it easy to use.

“I see small-scale UAVs becoming an integral tool for growers, big and small, enabling them to target their needs to better manage crops. It’s relatively inexpensive, capable, and a technology that is rapidly evolving. Eventually, these platforms will perform all kinds of applications beyond crop scouting, such as precisely watering or distributing insecticides. The possibilities and potential are impressive.

“We’re working out ‘best practices’ for farmers, looking at what we can do with sensors and ways to provide useful information to producers.”

He envisions a time when farmers will have “a swarm” of UAVs flying over hundreds of acres, checking multiple crops for insect, disease or weed pressure as well as other potential stressors.

Farms offer ideal locations to use drones. “They are fairly isolated and usually far away from airports.”

UAV technology offers farmers a “crop scout” that is flexible and capable of providing more information more quickly than a person on a four-wheeler or a motorbike. “We’re looking for ways to make the information easier to collect and easier to use,” Starek says.

Waiting on FAA

The big obstacle for now is FAA regulation. Once those regulations are in place, commercial entities will manufacture the platforms and the cost will come down.

“Some farmers may choose to hire someone to come out and scout fields with UAVs,” Starek says. “Others may want their own. It’s like having their own airplanes.”

The Research and Extension Center flight permit requires users to follow strict FAA guidelines. They have limits on how, when, and where the fixed-wing UAV can be used. Early on, Corpus Christi research conducts baseline surveys of crops fields at the center.

“We’ve been working with UAVs for almost two years,” Starek says, but only recently have they turned to agricultural applications.

The center is also pursuing a second permit, one that allows use of a roto-copter.

Time savings may be significant for farmers. Depending on the objective and the particular sensors on a drone, an entire field crop can be surveyed in less than 30 minutes, Landivar says. The data could then be plugged into a “smart” tractor via a computer jump drive. As the tractor moves through the field, it responds to plant conditions in specific locations, identified on a data map and indicating where to apply herbicides, insecticides, water, growth hormone regulators or other materials.

“That’s precision agriculture,” Starek says. “Apply only what’s needed where it’s needed. It will make for a higher-quality, higher-yielding crop, saving the grower time and money.”

Time saver

UAVs may eventually reduce the amount of time crop managers spend in the field evaluating crop performance.

“This technology could help in phenotyping, or evaluating the thousands of prodigy lines that now must be done by hand, plant by plant,” he says. “With the proper sensors on the platform, the UAV could do in very short order what normally can take up to several days, depending on the size of the study.”

 “In addition to aiding in the production of crops, other uses for this technology include the management of water, minerals, livestock and wildlife,” Landivar says.

Jacobs says volunteer fire departments also will find UAVs helpful in fighting wildfires. “Many do not have air support or only limited air support. We’re looking at what UAVs can do.”

He had hoped the regulations would be in place by “the end of last year.” After regulations are finalized, he estimates another 18 months before widespread commercial use. Operator training will take some time but will be essential and part of the overall cost of the UAV system.

“It’s not really an expensive system,” he says, although units currently cost as much as $60,000. “Costs will come down and other capabilities will be added. Training and upkeep will be crucial factors in UAV use.

Starek says users likely will have opportunities to attend one- or two-day seminars to become certified to use UAVs. “We had to go through training before we could use them,” he says.

The cost also depends on what an operator wants to do. “Evaluating cost should consider what the technology gives the producer,” Jacobs says. “At $60,000 it will take time to get the investment back.”

Next steps include analyzing needs, putting the regulations in place, lowering the cost and establishing training protocol.

Following the comment period, the FAA could take as long as a year, perhaps more, to put the regulations in place. “The technology is here,” Starek says. “We just need the rules.”

“Unmanned aircraft transitioning to commercial use shows how technology created and developed by the military can be put to civilian use,” Jacobs says.

In a few years, the UAV may be as ubiquitous as the SUV, which is an offspring of the army Jeep.

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