The Buzz of the Future

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Buzzing over a flat Kansas field, four different types of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) were demonstrated by Kansas State University personnel in early July. The four aircraft that were on display showed a small variety of UAS designs that are possible.

K-State is one university taking the lead on researching the use of UAS for the agriculture industry. The event was held to raise awareness about the potential these aircraft have for the agriculture industry.

UAS, sometimes known as unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV), are gaining more media attention because of mainstream media’s use of the term “drone” to describe them.

“These craft are not drones,” explained Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). “The term drone refers to a military craft and these UAS are not the type being used by the military.”

The use of UAS is strictly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act into law Feb. 14, 2012, which has provisions for the integration of UAS into the national airspace system by September 2015. The legislation has a number of benchmarks to be reached.

Currently, to fly a UAS, entities must receive a “Certificate of Authorization” (COA) from the FAA. These certificates are only being given to researchers, but other UAS are being sold and used under hobbyist rules. They must be fl own within line of sight of the operator, below 400 feet and only during the daytime.

AUVSI is involved with helping to integrate the use of UAS into the national airspace. The association even released a Code of Conduct to provide for the safe, nonintrusive use of UAS by its members who test, design and operate them. Toscano says it’s a common sense approach to operating a UAS, with an emphasis on safety, professionalism and respect.

Although UAS fly without a pilot, a ground crew is needed to set flight paths and collect the data as shown inside K-State’s UAS Mobile Ground Control Station, which allows staff to take UAS across the state to educate the industry on their use and to teach prospective students.


Although UAS could eventually be used in a wide range of industries, they probably have the biggest benefit for agriculture. Using a still camera, near infrared camera, video camera or live-feed camera, small UAS have many potential uses.

Crop uses include detecting insect damage, mapping vegetation around fields, mapping spatial patterns of insect damage, detecting diseases, mapping the spread of a disease in a

fi eld, identifying and mapping weeds, spot spraying of herbicides, crop nutrient condition assessment, assessing planting issues, assessing drought or overwatering, monitoring irrigation systems, assisting with a farmer’s precision ag applications, and helping to develop methods to characterize plant phenotypes.

For livestock operations, UAS can help monitor stock ponds for health risks like blue green algae blooms and help count livestock when needed or to locate them during calving season.

For pastures and rangelands, UAS can be used to estimate a pasture’s biomass, assess grazing impacts, map invasive species, and assess disease and insect infestations on the land.


Universities across the country are investigating UAS design and utility of uses. University of Florida researchers have demonstrated that low-altitude, high resolution aerial imaging using small UAS can detect citrus disease more accurately than other aerial imaging techniques. UAI International of Grand Forks, UA Vision of Dayton, Ohio, and the University of Dayton-led Institute for the Development and Commercialization of Advanced Sensor Technology (IDCAST) are working to develop and market UAS-based solutions for agricultural applications to identify early signs of crop problems.

Researchers at Kansas State University are using UAS to create precise maps of nitrogen deficiencies that could provide better data than random soil testing.

At Virginia Tech, a research team is using UAS to detect microbes in the atmosphere that may cause plant diseases, with the goal of creating an early warning system for potential epidemics.

Oregon State University plans to use UAS to analyze potato fields to help farmers more efficiently use water, fertilizer and pesticides to bolster yields and cut costs.


In addition to university interest, ag professionals recognize that many in the industry are rapidly reaching retirement age. As a result, agriculture is going to need faster, better ways to check on crops, a safer way to do hazardous jobs and information to increase yields while lowering costs.

One key business area of agriculture that UAS are expected to flourish is with crop consulting.

“The easiest fit for UAS to be used is with the crop consultant,” said Gary Pierznski, Ph.D., head of K-State’s department of agronomy and professor of soil and environmental chemistry. “It will be so much easier for the crop consultant to use a UAS to gather data quickly about a field. He will no longer have to spend as much time scouting a field. He’ll simply gather data by flying the UAS over the crop. He can analyze the data on his computer back at the office, thereby spending less time in a hot field and speeding up the number of fields he can visit in a day.”

As the technology advances, Pierznski said crop consultants will be able to diagnose plant diseases easier, determine insect infestations earlier and catch nutrient deficiencies. High resolution and near infrared photography already can enhance the work a consultant does, Pierznski said. As cameras get better and more advanced and the tools that can be added to a UAS become widely available, crop consultants will fi nd UAS a key tool in doing their jobs.

“With more UAS becoming available for use, this technology will help crop consultants handle more acres since it’s expected there will be fewer crop consultants to scout acres in the future,” Pierznski said. With UAS ranging in price from $5,000 up to several thousand dollars, farmers are also expected to be quick adopters.

“Basically the cost of the UAS will be determined by the payload that is added to the base unit,” said Mark Blanks, program manager of Kansas State University’s unmanned aircraft systems program.

At the event, Blanks demonstrated the different cameras and instruments that can be added to a basic unmanned vehicle and explained that depending on the additions, the cost of building or buying a UAS could vary widely.

Blanks also explained that although many farmers can build their own, especially if they are hobby aircraft enthusiasts, more and more companies are getting into the UAS business, and as that happens, prices are expected to come down.

Some UAS look like planes and others more like helicopters. [Right] Mark Blanks, program manager of K-State’s UAS program, explains the operation of a helicopter-like UAS.


K-State has been a leader in the unmanned aircraft systems field. In 2008, it established the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office, which is designed to promote the safe incorporation of UAS into the national airspace system.

It is also one of the first two universities in the U.S. to offer a bachelor’s degree in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), which started in January 2013. K-State is one of a few universities with authorization to fly UAS in the national airspace system, and conducts research on these remote systems.

The university’s bachelor’s degree program uses a handson approach for learning and attaining the skills needed to safely operate and manage UAS. K-State Salina’s campus has proximity to accessible, less restricted airspace that creates an ideal setting for learning to fly unmanned aircraft. The Smoky Hills Weapons Range gives students the ability to gain hands-on flight experience.

As the technology improves and the country awaits a decision from the FAA on future use of UAS, there is no doubt UAS hold a strong economic impact for major agricultural states.

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