Unmanned aerial vehicles prove useful in agriculture

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By Corey Moffet Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation

Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly referred to as drones in a majority of media outlets, have played an important role in U.S. military operations. These sophisticated flying machines have proven their utility in this arena, albeit at a huge price. Now the unmanned aerial vehicle industry is looking to expand into the civilian world, and the agricultural sector is expected to play a large role in this expansion.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration is determining how unmanned aircraft systems might be integrated safely into the national airspace system. The FAA uses the acronym “UAS” to include the unmanned aerial vehicles and all the associated support equipment, such as control stations, data links, telemetry, communications and navigation equipment. Often the image that comes to mind when thinking about drones is something like the iconic Predator with its nearly 60-foot wingspan and a loaded weight of more than 1 ton. This type of drone would occupy the same airspace routinely used by general and commercial aviation.

The challenge the FAA has in figuring out how to integrate safely these large drones into the national airspace is not trivial. Agriculture, however, can benefit from drones much smaller than the Predator. A system with a takeoff weight less than 55 pounds is classified as a small unmanned aerial vehicle by the FAA, and the agency has made it a priority to propose new rules governing their use. These drones are more of the scale and type that legally are flown now at elevations of 400 feet above ground level and lower by hobbyists for recreational purposes. Many of these droness can be disassembled easily and transported in a case the size of a large briefcase.

Like other classes of aircraft, small drones can be fixed wing or rotary wing. The fixed-wing aircraft tend to be more stable and require less power to stay aloft than the rotary-wing craft, but they are also less agile. Many drones use an autopilot system to sense their position and altitude, and make necessary corrections to stay upright and on path. Once this type of drone is airborne, the operator has little or nothing to do with the flight. Flight plans typically are designed using software on a laptop computer, and the flight path is communicated over a data link to the drone. When the flight is complete, the drone returns to a spot the operator has designated for safe landing. Some rotary-wing aircraft can return to the very same spot where they began flight. Initially, drones will be useful for agriculture because of their ability to deploy meaningful sensors, making it easy for users to observe resources from a vantage point not previously feasible.

In some ways, drone technology is positioned where personal computer technology was in the late 1970s. Computers at that time were large and very expensive, but they had proven useful in government and business. The personal computer was mainly of interest to hobbyists and produced few real-world benefits. Many believed the personal computer would remain a curiosity of this small group of enthusiasts. At that time, it would have been hard to believe that one day many families would own multiple computers or even imagine the now ubiquitous smartphones and tablets. The high cost and difficulty of using a personal computer in the 1970s were big adoption hurdles.

For the unmanned aerial vehicle today, the hurdles are regulatory (though for the small drones, these should be overcome soon), cost and the lack of simple tools that can use sensor data to help producers make decisions.

In crops such as corn and soybean, a number of tools already are available, and the development of similar tools for rangelands and forage crops will follow. If drones follow a similar path as the personal computer, low cost and useful tools will come — perhaps in ways we can’t even imagine now.