Take That, Red Baron
Kenville met with commodity groups in North Dakota and requested their input on four top issues for each crop. His goal is to identify potential for UAVs to help on those issues.
While potential users and developers in the U.S. have been frustrated by the slow pace of the FAA in developing rules, other factors are now in place that should speed adoption once rules are in place. They include dramatically falling prices and improved technology.
A good example of this is battery costs for the existing electric CropCam. A single battery for the model aircraft cost $174 three years ago. Today one can be bought for $7. The 8 MB and larger cameras now available on smart phones are another example of lower cost and higher quality. Multispectral cameras of all types are becoming smaller and digitized, ideal for flying on micro aircraft. It is these high-resolution cameras, combined with the potential for real-time image gathering that makes UAV use in agriculture so attractive.
"While aerial images from satellites and piloted aircraft are available today, they don't offer the quality capable from a camera on a UAV," explained Paul. "Satellite images currently display 2030 cm per pixel compared to only 3 cm per pixel with UAV systems. With a satellite, you are seeing a huge area in a picture, while with the UAV you can pick out the rust on an individual plant."
DATA ON DEMAND
Tom Kenville, founder of Unmanned Applications Institute International, shows the Goodrich small UAV for agricultural applications at a recent trade show in North Dakota. Equally important for growers and their service providers making application decisions in tight time frames is the ability to gather images on demand. While a traditional aircraft can capture similar quality images, one may or may not be available when needed. Although Pepin said developing regions without an existing aviation infrastructure are his company's major market, everyone benefits from timeliness, especially farmers and their service providers.
"You can't tell a crop to stop growing," said Pepin. "You can buy a CropCam UAV for $7,000, put a $3,000 infrared camera on it and use it. You don't have to find a pilot doing aerial photography and get him to take pictures today or tomorrow. Also, when the cloud ceiling is under 400 feet, that pilot can't fly, but you can fly a UAV at 200 to 400 feet above the deck."
Paul owns and has flown a CropCam extensively. He sees it as an early example of what will soon be developed if UAVs are to become commonplace tools. Two key developments are robust systems that are relatively easy to operate and maintain and trained pilots. While operators may not need the UND pilot school, they will need to develop familiarity with this new skill.
Paul recommended crop consultants, agronomists and other interested service providers start conversations with people in the industry or entering it. Find out if local colleges or universities have or are developing UAV programs. He even advocated getting a radio-controlled model plane and becoming comfortable with it.
"Just the experience gained by doing that will be a good introduction to this type of technology, whether or not you ever operate a UAV," said Paul. "If you had no experience with a UAV, I could probably teach you what you needed to know in about two weeks with today's technology. I believe the technology will soon be robust and simple so that an instructional video is all you will need."