Drones tested to help Georgia famers see crops from above


MOULTRIE, Ga. (AP) — On a dirt path through rows of corn, cotton and peanuts in this South Georgia town, a small black unmanned helicopter levitates, then takes off 675 feet into the sky.

It’s one of the test flights of unmanned helicopters from Stockbridge-based military drone maker Guided Systems Technologies that started in June and finish next month — a project underwritten by a $100,000 grant from the Georgia Centers of Innovation for Aerospace and Agribusiness. Researchers from the University of Georgia Tifton campus and Middle Georgia State College are also involved.

“This is absolutely a sweet spot for us,” said Steve Justice, director of the Center of Innovation for Aerospace. For Georgia, agriculture is worth $60 billion a year, and aerospace $50 billion a year, so Justice says if unmanned aircraft drive economic development for both, “it’s a huge win from the start.”

In this nascent market, “our goal is to be the leader in the Southeast, if not the nation,” he said.

The battery-powered copter is just a few feet long, and its takeoff is controlled from the ground by safety pilot Josh Frizzell with a remote control. Ground station operator Jesse Sheridan sits under a pop-up canopy peering at a laptop on a small folding table to guide the aircraft along a computerized path high above the fields.

During the 10-minute flight, a camera attached to the helicopter takes multispectral images of peanut and cotton crops, which farmers can use to detect disease or other problems.

The project also represents hope for expanded use of unmanned aircraft as the nation’s military drawdown prompts drone makers to search for civilian uses. Technology-fueled “precision agriculture” is one of the key target areas.

Images taken from above with infrared photography and other technology could show farmers the heat or water content of their plants.

Donald Chase, a peanut and corn farmer in Macon County, said the images could help farmers pinpoint the optimal time to pick peanuts, which could improve flavor.

And during a rainy season like this year, it might help better target the use of fungicide, which for Chase Farms can cost as much as $20,000 per application.

“The peanut industry in Georgia specifically has been really successful because Georgia farmers adopt this stuff quickly,” Chase said.

Plus, “I just think it’s kind of cool,” said Chase, who chairs the research committee for the Georgia Peanut Commission, which like the Georgia Cotton Commission provided $5,000 for the project.

On a hot and humid Friday in early August, safety pilot Frizzell stood amid the 10 acres of fields donated by Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie for the testing.

Chad Dennis, pilot in command, ensures the tiny helicopter maintains a safe distance from other aircraft. A man they call OB1 — Wayne Raye, observer 1 — scans the sky for other planes.

Glen Harris, a specialist in soils and fertilizers at the University of Georgia Tifton campus involved in the project, thinks the images coming back are promising.

“Just the perspective of being up in the air and seeing everything, it’s really neat,” Harris said.

“It seems to me like this is gonna be a lot more efficient, a lot more thorough” than the typical method farmers use of scouting fields by walking among the rows to look for problems, Harris said. “The earlier you can catch things, the better.”

Georgia loses about 16.5 percent of its crops to diseases, said Gary McMurray, who leads research on early detection of pests and diseases in agriculture at the Georgia Tech Research Institute.

By the time a farmer or crop scout walking a field can see a problem, “it could be infecting a large portion of your crops before you notice it,” McMurray said.

Unmanned aircraft are already used in agriculture in other places, including Japan. Industry experts hope larger unmanned aircraft could also be used in the United States for crop-dusting at lower altitudes to better target spray and prevent it from being carried off by the wind, with less risk for pilots.

In the United States, it’s still against the law to fly drones for commercial use in virtually all cases beyond federally approved test flights. But the FAA plans to integrate unmanned aircraft into the nation’s airspace by September 2015.

With the future in mind, the Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace has been working since 2009 on development of the unmanned aircraft industry “so when the FAA does flip the switch … we’re ready to start going,” Justice said. Georgia is also competing to be selected by the FAA as a drone test site.

The first systems “are going to be incredibly expensive,” but the price will later come down, McMurray said.

Guided Systems founder and chief technology officer Eric Corban is optimistic about the potential in agriculture. “There’s no question in my mind that there will eventually be enough volume in the market,” Corban said.

Georgia Peanut Commission Executive Director Don Koehler said the multispectral images from unmanned aircraft could help farmers spot problems they might not see otherwise. “What we’re talking about is using a computer here to spot, well, maybe something’s a little different here that maybe isn’t recognizable by the human eye.”

Improving efficiency in crop production could help farmers cut costs and grow in emerging markets in Africa and Southeast Asia, Koehler said.

Justice hopes there are follow-on projects after the Guided Systems research is complete this fall.

McMurray thinks there should be fewer concerns about privacy and other issues related to drones in agriculture, since the unmanned aircraft would be flying over a farm and focused on plants.

Chase and Koehler noted that it could be several years before the feasibility of unmanned aircraft for farming in Georgia is clear.

“It gives the farmer a little different view of his crops than he’s had before,” Koehler said. “It just allows us to broaden our vision a little bit.”