Small, unmanned aircraft systems equipped with high-powered cameras capable of capturing pictures and video with amazing precision could be coming soon to a farm near you.
“You can map an entire section of land at one-inch resolution in about 18 minutes, something that would take hours and hours on a tractor,” said Kevin Price, a professor of agronomy specializing in natural resources remote sensing at Kansas State University as he holds up a boomerang-shaped glider similar to those used by remote controlled airplane hobbyists. “At the peak of the growing time, we can predict within 85 percent the yield variability in a field. You can’t do that on the ground with your eyeball.”
Aerial sensing makes it possible to create a very precise map of nitrogen deficiencies that can be fed into Global Positioning System units mounted on fertilizer applicators, easily trumping the accuracy of random soil testing done at various spots within a field. That’s just one example of many potential applications.
Crop scouts can observe disease progression by looking at the unique pattern of a disease as it spreads. “If a farmer can fly his own field and look at it and get a pretty good idea of what it is, he may not have to treat the entire field,” Price said.
“Farmers will be able to look at their crop through a lens they haven’t had in the past,” Price said. Satellite imaging, which is already common, pales compared to new imaging capabilities so precise they can take readings at the individual plant level.
By analyzing what Price calls high throughput phenotyping and spectral readings and converting them into computer-enhanced imagery, students in his classes are already helping plant breeders identify plants with the best yield potential. “Geneticists traditionally have to look at every single plant, but this way we can save them all of the work of harvesting those plants by accurately modeling their future yield potential,” he explained.
Three-dimensional imaging can also be used to reveal height variation within variety trials.
Price is collaborating with Deon Van Der Merwe, another K-State faculty member and a veterinarian from South Africa specializing in livestock toxicology issues, who is using it to map dangerous densities of blue-green algae in lakes, a critical concern in times of drought. Infestation levels can vary widely across the same body of water.
Another potential application is mapping quantities of biomass (expressed as BTUs of energy) to help determine bio-refinery feasibility and placement in pastures infested with Eastern red cedars and similar environments. Price is scheduled to speak on that topic during the national convention of the Society for Range Management in early February in downtown Oklahoma City.
Remote sensing has numerous applications related to range management, including calculating forage carrying capacity.
A few farmers are using the cutting-edge scouting technology already, but Price expects its application to become more widespread. Unfortunately, research and commercial application has been hindered somewhat by Federal Aviation Administration regulation, he says.
“The FAA is so restrictive that it won’t let us do much research at all,” he says. “In many ways, we’re more limited than a hobbyist.”
Looking at the imagery provided by the powerful surveillance technology, it’s clear why there might also be privacy concerns among the general public.
“Those are all things that have to be worked out,” Price conceded. “People do need to be taught about proper etiquette. If you are a farmer using this technology, let your neighbors know and maybe even offer to fly one of their fields.”
Price compares it to the Internet, a tool with broad benefits that outweigh any downsides.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “It’s just a matter of getting the FAA to understand that we need this technology.”
K-State’s Salina campus has one of the top programs in the nation related to military drone training. After teaming up with Kirk Demuth, a pilot trainer in that program, Price and Van Der Merwe are now offering a class on the main campus in Manhattan that includes data collection, interpretation and analysis components. In the near future, farmers will also have an opportunity to learn about the technology and how to apply it on an individual basis.
“I’ll be working with the extension service to go out and offer workshops to help them get started,” Price said. “Then I’ll start developing on-line courses.”
The K-State program is also working on designing affordable agriculture-specific surveillance drones. “The cheapest one on the market now is $10,000, but we’re working on something that will be available for less than $5,000,” Price said.
Eventually, they plan to transfer their work to a company in the Wichita area for commercialization.
“Academic research typically doesn’t get to the public very quickly, but I’m working more in the applied research mode,” Price said. “If we share what we’re learning with the private sector, it will get to the producer much quicker.”
He isn’t the only one pressing to get into the aerial scouting market. Scion UAS LLC, a Loveland, Colo., based manufacturer of unmanned aircraft systems, recently announced it is finalizing plans for commercialization of drones for agricultural use. Jim Sampson, the company’s founder and CEO, said he believes farming will be one of the first industries to adopt the use of unmanned aircraft.
To read this article in the La Junta Tribune Democrat click here.