By Brett Davis
Officials from Kansas State University demonstrated how unmanned aircraft can benefit agriculture, flying two types of UAS that can be used for crop monitoring, pest evaluation, rangeland assessment and harmful algae blooms.
The demonstration, held 2 July, was conducted at the state’s Crisis City facility near Salina, which has various manmade and natural disaster scenarios and is used for first responder training.
The KSU officials flew a homegrown fixed-wing aircraft the school is developing as a commercial product for farmers and an off-the-shelf Aeryon Scout quadrotor. KSU also demonstrated another student-developed aircraft, the Crow, but didn’t fly it because the wind was unusually low and the aircraft couldn’t take to the air.
As AUVSI’s recent economic forecast indicated, UAS are expected to have a huge impact in the world of agriculture, which is expected to be the largest commercial market for the systems.
Kansas, the nation’s largest producer of wheat, ranked No. 7 on the list of states expected to benefit from UAS use in agriculture. According to the AUVSI report, the state will gain 3,716 new jobs from 2015 to 2025 and see an economic impact of more than $2.9 billion in the same time period.
Kevin Price, professor of agriculture, nature resources, remote sensing and GIS at the KSU Department of Agronomy and Department of Geography, says it makes sense to develop low-cost systems aimed at farmers because of the efficiency and cost savings they can provide.
Such systems can be used to not only evaluate crop yields but also do so much faster than traditional methods.
“We can tell them [farmers] which plots are going to be their best-yielding plots” so they can focus on those and not waste time on the others, he said.
Evaluating crops by foot can take 1,500 hours, whereas the Zephyr II flying-wing UAS the school has developed can cover hundreds of acres in minutes, while costing as little as $5,000.
Deon van der Merwe, head of the toxicology section at the College of Veterinary Medicine and a radio controlled aircraft hobbyist, modified a commercial Ritewing UAS aircraft to make the agriculture-focused Zephyr II. It employs a commercial point-and-shoot digital camera modified to shoot infrared imagery and a GoPro video camera.
“Our goal here is to build as inexpensive aircraft as possible … so that farmers can get aircraft to monitor their fields,” Price said. “The more you work in the field, the more exciting it is in terms of applications.”
Feeding the World
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran later joined KSU leaders and AUVSI President and CEO Michael Toscano to highlight the demonstrations and the impact that unmanned aircraft are expected to have on the economy of Kansas.
Moran said Kansas is both the aviation state and “the state that feeds the world,” and noted that these two attributes come together in the form of unmanned aircraft.
He noted that he cochairs the Senate Hunger Caucus, which advocates for food programs, particularly in emergencies, “but mostly my interest is how we apply technology to increase the production of agriculture, which is already very productive,” he said. “What can we do to feed and provide energy and clothing to a hungry world?”
He said one of his last earmarks in the Senate, before such practices fell out of favor, went to KSU to help develop the unmanned aircraft program. Moran said he hopes it will help train young technologists who can then keep their skills in the state.
KSU has one of the nation’s largest academic fleet of unmanned aircraft, according to Kurt Barnhart, executive director of KSU’s Applied Aviation Research Center. The school has 15 certificates of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly its aircraft, which include student-built and commercial systems.
Gary Pierzynski, interim dean of the KSU College of Agriculture, noted that 95 percent of the state’s land is used for agriculture, which could be more efficient by using unmanned systems.
“The technology is in place right now to put this to good use,” he said.
Now, farmers looking for crop stressors can either walk the fields or do spot checks.
“We can replace a lot of that with unmanned aircraft systems,” he said. “You can fly a section of land in 20 minutes … and you could look on that picture exactly where you needed to go on the ground to diagnose whatever problems may be there, or if they are not there you don’t have to go into the field at all.”
The afternoon session included another demonstration of the Aeryon Scout, which flew a crop-monitoring pattern at 150 feet altitude and helped underscore Pierzynski’s remarks.
Mark Blanks, the UAS program manager for KSU’s Applied Aviation Research Center, noted that about 20 acres were imaged at a very high resolution in just a few minutes, with little drama.
“The point was, it is non-spectacular, and I’m proud of that,” he said.