Are Drones the future of agriculture in our region?

As agriculture becomes more high tech, will we now see drones flying over fields instead of pickups driving through them?


Posted on 12/27/14

By Melissa Anderson

At the 18th annual Canola Expo, John Nowatzki of NDSU gave a presentation on the effectiveness of using Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS or drones) in an agricultural capacity.

Nowatzki is currently heading a two year research project based in Carrington in conjunction with the University of North Dakota Aerospace program, which currently offers a four year program in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations.

The objective of the study is to evaluate drone’s capabilities of being used for agricultural purposes in both the livestock and farming sectors. The drones were equipped with color, thermal, and infrared sensors to detect crops and animals from the air.

The funding for the project came from a North Dakota research grant which had to be met dollar for dollar by other donors. The donors who helped match the grant funds were the North Dakota Soybean Council, the North Dakota Corn Council, and LWS, which is a private surveying company.

North Dakota is currently one of six states the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is allowing to conduct such studies with UAS.

The FAA has very strict regulations in regards to the use and flying of UAS. Generally, operation limits are for hobby and recreational use only and are restricted to flying below 400 feet, away from airports and air traffic, and the UAS must be within sight of the operator.

Experimental certificate regulations, which is what this study falls under, does not allow carrying people or property for compensation or hire, but do allow operations for research and development, flight and sales demonstrations and crew training.

“The FAA is working with civilian operators to collect technical and operational data that will help refine the UAS airworthiness certification process” the FAA stated on their website concerning the future of UAS.

Some of the things the study hopes to identify with drone’s mounted sensors in regards to crops are plant emergence, plant population, nutrient deficiencies, disease symptoms, weed damage, weed infestation, and plant vigor are the primary points.

The study is also attempting to use the sensors to track animal movement, identify diseased animals [i.e. fever with thermal sensors] and breeding activity within the livestock study.

Nowatzki is utilizing two different types of UAS or drones within the study. One is a rotocopter, the Draganflyer. It is only capable of flying for 18 to 20 minutes depending on the weather conditions.

The Draganflyer is equipped with a Go-Pro type of camera that has been modified to be infrared capable. The cost for this piece of equipment is $3,000.

The other drone is a fixed wing model called the Trimble UX5. It has been equipped with a regular digital camera made by Sony that has also been modified for infrared.

This drone has a cost of $50,000 and can only be purchased if the person buying it attends a five day course where they learn how to control and fly the drone.

The key difference between these two drones is in how they are flown. The robocopter is flown much like a remote control aircraft where the person flying has a controller and flies the vehicle that way.

The Trimble UX5 on the other hand utilizes GPS and computer software to virtually fly itself.

“You enter in the coordinates of take off and landing, tell it where you want it to fly, then you can go sit on the porch and have a cup of coffee” Nowatzki stated in regards to the Trimble UX5.

Nowatzki also noted during his presentation that Japan uses similar technology to spray the rice fields.

Nowatzki explained that the study is showing significant promise for utilizing drones for agricultural purposes.

“Statistically, the program has found that the UAS using MATLAB software has the same abilities as a human counting and identifying standing corn” Nowatzki stated at the presentation.

One drawback that the study has encountered so far is that finding compatible photo software has been very difficult.

“Every [photo] software that has been used so far degenerates the original photo quality” Nowatzki said.

Other drawbacks to the potential use of drones for agriculture include the initial expense of the drones, sensors, and cameras.

“The data transfers and management are very time consuming” Nowatzki stated.

The privacy issue is another vote of contention against the use of UAS in agriculture.

“As a hobbyist there is no problem [with flying UAS], the privacy issue would have to be settled with laws” Nowatzki explained.

As seeds become smarter and ground technology becomes increasingly advanced it would appear the sky is the limit for the future of agriculture.