John Nowatzki, North Dakota State University

John Nowatzki is an agricultural machine systems specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at North Dakota State University. His research uses UAS in crop and livestock applications to improve crop health and increase crop yields. Increasing Human Potential recently had the opportunity to talk to John Nowatzki and learn more about his projects and research.

You have had a long and successful career in researching agriculture and technology related issues. Right now you’re an agricultural machine systems specialist and professor at North Dakota State University. Tell us, what has been the recent focus of your research, and how does it relate to UAS?

I am currently conducting applied research and University Extension programming in four areas: UAS applications to crop and livestock management, active optical sensor applications to field crop health, the impacts of soil compaction from wheel tracks on field crop yields, and the impacts of tree windbreaks on field crop yields. Each of these focus areas relate to precision agriculture.

Crop producers are increasingly providing digital data to manage crop production on a more precise field scale. UAS crop and livestock monitoring, and imagery collected with UAS, will provide an additional timely dataset to increase precision management practices for farmers and ranchers and simultaneously provide more effective safeguards for the natural environment.

We see the focus of your formal education is in agricultural education. In what ways can UAS change the way that people approach agriculture?

UAS will provide timely, high-resolution imagery and a real-time eye in the sky for agricultural producers to use to more precisely apply crop inputs, to validate past management decisions and to adjust in-season practices.

You have demonstrated a few different UAS and their uses in farming to the public. What does the non-farming population need to know about UAS for a greater population to support the technology?

Generally people will support UAS technology in agriculture similarly to how they support other mechanization and technology, because they recognize these practices increase production and contribute to abundant, reasonably priced food products. A portion of the general population will disagree with UAS uses in farming and ranching like a minority of the population disagrees with the use of agricultural chemicals and genetically modified organisms in food production. However, most people understand these technologies are proven safe before they are adapted by the majority of agricultural producers and, therefore, support the wider adaption to support increased production for the growing world population.

Media sharing of safe, positive and successful UAS applications in agriculture that demonstrate increased production of high-quality food products will have a positive impact on the non-farming populations’ attitudes toward UAS uses in farming and ranching.

In your experience, what can UAS provide that their manned counterparts cannot?

UAS are safer, less expensive and timelier than manned aircraft remote sensing. UAS operated in crop fields and livestock rangeland in rural fields under existing safety guidelines provide essentially no safety threat to people on the ground or manned aircraft. Additionally, manned aircraft operated in close proximity to crop and livestock operations are potentially more dangerous to the aircraft operator.

You were a part of the first ever Federal Aviation Administration-sanctioned flight of UAS for agriculture and have spoken publically about how long the process took. How does the lack of regulatory framework from the FAA affect your research?

The FAA regulatory framework is appropriate to safely integrate UAS into the manned airspace in the United States. The FAA is allowing for university UAS research and accepts practices of incorporating non-flight research activities to be simultaneously explored. The recent inclusion of commercial exemptions into FAA regulations further enhances opportunities to conduct UAS agricultural research and extension programs. Additional FAA regulatory personnel could certainly further the opportunity for universities to receive permissions timelier.

As someone who actively engages with today’s youth and tomorrow’s innovators, what do you believe is the most important topic issue for students to learn, among those that relate to UAS?

Learning how to build and operate UAS will be interesting and exciting for youths. However, learning how to process and manage the imagery collected with UAS will likely be a more important skill for young people seeking employment in existing and future UAS industries.

What does that future hold for you and UAS? Do you have any other exciting research projects planned? What would you like to do next?

Our 2014 UAS applications to agriculture will continue in 2015. Our goals include using UAS-mounted sensors to collect data of ongoing crop and livestock research projects during the crop season at the North Dakota State University Carrington Research Extension Center. Project personnel will collaborate with NDSU research scientists conducting research at the CREC. The primary goal of this project is a proof of concept of the usefulness and effectiveness of UAS in crop and livestock management in North Dakota. Project personnel will identify effective UAS applications in crop and livestock management.

We have applied for funding for several UAS applied research and extension projects planned for 2015. One project will demonstrate how university unmanned aircraft systems research can be used to enhance economic development in North Dakota. Investigators will collaborate with private sector partners to conduct university research and simultaneously increase the economic efficiencies of the private sector partners’ commercial activities. Project activities will include using selected UAS to enhance oil development activities, crop and livestock production, and agricultural service industries.

Another project will use handheld radio spectrometers, as well as color, thermal and infrared sensors to measure light reflectance, intensity and color of weeds growing in greenhouse environments. The same handheld sensor will be used in outdoor plot and field weeds patches. Researchers will collect reflectance values with commercial sensors designed for use on manned and unmanned aircraft on the same greenhouse, plot and field weeds. The data from the commercial sensors will be correlated to the handheld spectrometer. The results will be published and shared with commercial agribusinesses and crop producers for potential use in UAS operations.

We also anticipate using UAS to identify and quantify diseases in sugar beets and canola fields.