Whenever a new technology comes along that can make a job easier, the ag industry is quick to pick it up. In this case, the technology that is causing a buzz is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or, as they are commonly called, drones. Over the past few years, the agricultural world has discovered more and more uses for the drone, and industries that serve producers are also realizing the potential that drones have.
By Melissa Anderson
Precision agriculture is a multi-billion dollar investment into the software and technology that has advanced the ability of producers to utilize their acreage to its fullest while also making the job of growing the world’s food easier. Many are familiar with farm equipments’ ability to utilize satellite and GPS to navigate fields and get the birds eye view from above. Drones are the latest technology to give producers the edge as they face environmental and regulatory pressures.
“UAVs provide producers real-time imagery of crops and livestock. Satellite imagery was dependent on cloud-free days, plus satellites only provide spatial resolution of 2 meters. UAVs can provide millimeter resolution,” John Nowatzki, an Agricultural Machines Specialist at North Dakota State University, said.
Nowatzki has extensive experience with UAVs as he has led NDSU research and extension activities relating to UAVs in agriculture since 2014. His work with UAVs includes projects relating to the effectiveness of UAS-mounted sensors in assisting with field crop and livestock production management issues and using UAS imagery to identify specific weed infestations in cropland. Nowatzki has also conducted studies of large-scale UAS applications to agriculture.
Nowatzki explained that UAVs are a very valuable tool in the precision ag toolbox that producers can easily utilize. UAVs can assist producers with:
• Crop field scouting
• Livestock scouting in pastures.
• Preparing variable rate application maps for in-season fertilization
• Crop emergence crop stand count
• Assessing wind, hail and excess moisture damage to crops
• Weed identification and mapping in crop fields – used to make more precise herbicide applications.
• Crop disease identification and mapping
These tasks can be some of the most difficult and time consuming aspect for producers to complete in regards to ensuring their crop makes it to the market. This is especially important as farmland is being reduced yearly by millions of acres and the global population is exploding. Producers need tools such as UAVs to ensure the highest possible crop yields.
“The hope that we can have for unmanned aircraft making a contribution is to have it be more precise. We need to put the exact amount of fertilizer, the right kind of seed, the right kind of pesticide in the right place,” Nowatzki said. “There is great variability across fields, and we need to focus on that. We need to make sure that we are maximizing the yields all across each part of the fields. The important thing, from the farmer’s point of view, is this allows them to not only be more efficient and protect the environment but maximize yields.”
UAVs come in many different sizes and types from the large fixed-wing to the small rotocopter. Nowatzki has experience with a few of these models, working with small fixed-wing, rotocopters, and autonomous sprayers. For those just starting to work with UAVs, Nowatzki recommends the small rotocopters models. These types of UAVs , especially the multi-rotor versions, provide the operator with several key advantages over the fixed-wing. Not only do the multi-rotor UAVs offer more stability and power, they are also usually easier to fly. With the ability to have vertical takeoffs and landings, ease of use is huge with the multi-rotor as there is no need for additional assistance from another person to operate. Because UAVs are also inexpensive and are capable of being used with a variety of cameras, the tool is quickly showing the ability to change the future of agriculture.
“Like all new technologies, research is needed to prove their uses,” Nowatzki said.
NDSU has been incorporating the use of UAV’s and studying the results for a few years now, and the results are promising for the average producer. In 2019, the NDSU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department is initiating the following activities directly relating to UAVs and precision agriculture:
• Precision Agriculture Major and Minor. The NDSU Precision Ag major classes started this year at the onset of the semester in January. Two new precision ag faculty were hired for this program in addition to the creation of six new courses.
• USDA Precision Ag Research Project which will take place between 2019-2043. The project is slated to have annual funding of $840,000 allowing for the hiring of four additional personnel to conduct the research and include six graduate students to assist each year. Nowatzki explained that the objectives for this particular project include collecting all available digital data on research projects: weed identifications, herbicide-resistant weed identification, and the best management practices to optimize yield while protecting the environment for wheat, corn, beans.
• NDSU will also be creating the Center for Digital Agriculture and Big Data in 2019.
“The primary objectives of this Center will be to promote collaborations with agricultural industries relating to precision agriculture and to promote K-12 and college education relating to precision agriculture technologies,” Nowatzki explained.
Within NDSU it is not just the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department realizing the uses of UAVs either. Other departments at the university are also utilizing the technology to expand their abilities as well. Within the business sector of agriculture, companies are also seeing the potential of UAVs and investing time and money accordingly.
There are a few issues that UAVs and those wanting to use them face. From following FAA guidelines to privacy concerns, being aware of what you can and cannot do before you take a new UAV flying around a field could keep you from landing in hot water.