Groups fund UAS research in precision ag, forestry
New funding from Oregon BEST and the Portland Development Commission (PDC) to a startup company working with Oregon State University could help Oregon become a national leader in the development and use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones in precision agriculture and forestry applications.
The UAS technology being developed by HoneyComb Corp. could potentially save farmers irrigation, fertilizer and labor costs by pinpointing areas where crops are stressed so farmers can respond locally, reducing input costs, decreasing runoff, and boosting yields. In forestry, the drones-and-data system could help determine tree counts, stand density and areas of disease or pest infestation, enabling growers to more efficiently estimate timber value from the air before performing labor-intensive, on-the-ground timber cruising.
The $150,000 from Oregon BEST and the PDC is helping the Wilsonville, Ore. startup collaborate with OSU researchers to verify that data collected by the company's UAS flying over croplands and forests is accurate. Part of the funding supports data collection and analysis known as ground truthing, or sending technicians into the field to gather data on the ground to compare with remote sensing data collected by aerial photography, infrared images, etc.
"Rather than someone walking a 1,000-acre field looking for areas of crop stress, our system can survey that acreage in an hour and analyze the data so a farmer can see where the issues are and hone in on those areas," said Ryan Jenson, CEO and one of the three cofounders of the company. "Part of the Oregon BEST funding is allowing us to correlate and validate this data, so we have third-party verification of the efficacy of our information."
The HoneyComb system measures reflectance in the visible and near-infrared spectrum, which can be used to calculate the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), an indicator of crop stress. In imagery, healthy and vigorous plants are colored "green," whereas highly stressed plants are "red." This allows growers, farm consultants, or service providers to quickly hone in on problem areas.
The technology doesn't yet determine what's wrong with plants, but that they are under stress, which could be from a lack of water or fertilizer, encroachment of weeds, over-irrigation, etc. The funding is also enabling HoneyComb to add thermal imaging technology to the system, which will indicate moisture levels in plants and show where irrigation needs adjustment.