Take That, Red Baron

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In Virginia, drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are being used to collect fusarium spores and other microbes just above field levels. In California, they have been used to evaluate water stress, which translates into labor, water and energy savings. Everywhere in between, crop consultants, growers and others are waiting to see how they will change agriculture.

Even though UAV use in the U.S. is still restricted to researchers and government agencies, with some allowance for individual property owners, change is in the air. Drones will soon be commonplace in American agriculture. All that is stopping it are FAA restrictions on commercial operation in the U.S. New rules are expected later this year that may allow operation of small systems at low altitudes for agricultural use.

"The first group to be targeted will be police and emergency responders," said Rory Paul, Volt Aerial Robotics. "With 50,000 police departments, they are the Holy Grail for UAV companies. Once that is accomplished, we will see companies targeting agriculture."


Some agricultural companies are warming up their engines already, so to speak. Trimble recently purchased Gatewing, a Belgium maker of UAVs and developer of image processing and delivery software. Four years ago, Monsanto purchased EarthMap Solutions, with its remote sensing technology that measures chlorophyll content and plant health. AutoCopter Corporation has developed technology that flies, captures data and creates GeoTIFF (GPS referenced) files in the air while operators view the high definition video live through media glasses. Files are immediately converted to distortion-free ortho maps (geometrically corrected or orthorectified).

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, will eventually be commonplace in American agriculture and will benefit crop consultants. CropCam and its parent company MicroPilot, maker of autopilot systems for UAVs, is a Canadian company actively marketing low cost UAVs. The CropCam system includes a controlled model glider with a miniature autopilot, camera, Trimble GPS and software to provide images on demand. Several hundred systems have been sold in Canada and abroad.

"Our original idea was to market it in agriculture for fertilizer and pesticide management in crops; hence the name," said Pierre Pepin, vice president, MicroPilot. "However, our customers have found a multitude of other uses, including checking power lines for bird nests and estimating the volume of gravel in stockpiles. People see what it was created for, but realize it can do other things as well."

Paul is a UAV consultant and one of many frustrated UAV entrepreneurs. He suggested that such business activities and innovations are just a sample of what will happen when FAA rules are released. He has worked with UAVs for the past seven years, consults with several academic institutions and is working on a low cost UAV system that would be leased to users rather than owned.

"The inability to operate commercially has stifled innovation," he said. "In Canada and Australia, we already see service providers working with farmers, initially with large agricultural concerns, but it has quickly trickled down to individual, large scale farmers acquiring a small UAV. UAVs have been used in Japan for the past 10 years. They even use them to crop dust small rice paddies."


One segment that is rapidly ramping up involvement in UAVs are colleges, large and small. They range from the likes of Northland Community College, Thief River Falls, Minn., with an existing program in Aviation Maintenance to the neighboring University of North Dakota (UND) with its internationally known pilot training programs.

"UND has students in the classrooms on simulators, which are like the iPads and laptops they will use to actually fly in the field," explained Tom Kenville, co-founder of the Unmanned Applications Institute (UAI) International, a North Dakota non-profit founded to develop the unmanned aerospace industry in that state. North Dakota is one of two dozen states hoping to secure designation as an FAA approved UAV test site.

"These are exciting times," he said. "UAVs are expected to double the size of the current aviation industry. Our mission is to work with schools and companies and grow the industry."

An AutoCopter is an early example of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). UAVs are anticipated to be approved for use by crop consultants and retailers. The FAA is expected to make a decision later this year. UAI is also involved with others outside North Dakota and even the upper Midwest. Nearly a year ago, UAI joined a Dayton, Ohio based initiative specifically to develop and market UAV technology for agriculture. Partners include Goodrich, a Minnesota based company, already manufacturing UAVs and the University of Dayton led Institute for Development and Commercialization of Advanced Sensor Technology. Sensor development will focus around evaluating crop damage, identifying infestations and soil conditions.

The joint effort made sense to Kenville. "They are strong in sensor development, and we are real strong in operations in North Dakota," he said. 

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."


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."

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Peter La Franchi    
Varsity Lakes, Queensland, Australia  |  July, 17, 2012 at 06:52 PM

Citing the alleged market conditions which apply to UAS operations in other nations requires genuine familiarity with facts. Australia has standing UAS airspace access regulations but these do not faciliate the ability for the agricultural sector to fly in the manner Rory Paul claims. As with the US there are ongoing regulatory hurdles to be overcome and years of hard work to achieve market acceptance are likewise required

Rory Paul    
St Louis  |  September, 08, 2012 at 03:40 PM

Peter Reading the section I can understand your comment. I did not mean to imply that Australian farmers were operating sUAS on mass rather that there is a process in place that is progressing both on the commercial and policy fronts and that it is more progressive than that which is underway here in the US. Yours Sincerely Rory Paul

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