Drone use for agriculture a growing field


Edward Colimore, Inquirer Staff Writer

Like a bird with its wings spread out to catch wind, the drone glides effortlessly over expansive farm fields, harvesting gigabytes of data while following a preplanned flight path.

Does the crop need fertilizer? Is it getting enough water? Are there signs of insect infestation? Is it time for pesticides and weed killers?

In a single day, information is collected by sensors, interpreted by computer programs, then provided to the grower through photos and color-keyed maps of the land.

The use of drones to give farmers a bird’s-eye view of crops and an assessment of their health is becoming a growing field attracting new businesses such as Unmanned Sensing Systems (US2) in Mount Laurel. The company now is among the first in New Jersey to gain Federal Aviation Administration authorization to operate the flights in all 50 states.

Scores of companies across the country have focused on drones not only as a tool in agriculture but in construction; search-and-rescue missions; topographical mapping; pipeline and utility pole surveys; flood and storm damage analyses, and monitoring of livestock, forest fires, and climate change.

Drones, which likely will get their widest initial use in farming, have been approved for operation by certified pilots under 200 feet and can’t be used over populated areas.

But efforts are also underway by companies such as Sunhillo Corp. in West Berlin to safely integrate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into the national airspace far above 200 feet.

Sunhillo has worked toward that goal with Virginia Tech and local schools, including Rutgers University and Richard Stockton College.

Researchers will develop “sense-and-avoid” systems to prevent collisions and procedures that will help the FAA write regulations for future commercial and other civil uses of the unmanned crafts.

In the meantime, drones are finding uses in agriculture, “allowing more ground to be covered on farms,” said Dan Murray, who founded US2 last year and received the FAA authorization April 17. Normally “scouts check the fields on foot, ATVs, or motorbikes.

“But as a crop like corn gets taller, it becomes more difficult to get in the field,” said Murray, 27, of Medford. With a drone, “you can see the whole field, not just the outside.”

Murray had been collaborating with Willard Agri-Service, a Lynch, Md., firm that manages hundreds of farms in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, surveying crops to determine their needs.

“We’ve been experimenting and will be ready to bring the service to market in June,” said Murray. “We’re fine-tuning right now.

“Each flight might collect five to 10 gigabytes of data to be interpreted,” he said. “The farmer can have it the same day.”

The drone is equipped with sensors that pick up high-quality thermal and multispectral images that “see more than the naked eye, based on the way the light is reflected,” Murray said. “You’ll be able to tell whether vegetation is in stress.”

Murray has partnered with Tom Speakman, a Willard salesman who has walked up to 380 miles through fields each growing season while checking clients’ crops.

“About a year and a half ago, Dan [Murray] and I started talking about a more efficient way of looking at crops,” said Speakman, 42, of Worton, Md. “We still have people walking the fields.”

But with the drones, “we can cover a lot more acres in a day and tell the amount of fertilizer that it needs and change the rate that it’s being applied,” he said. “Some parts of the field might need more, some less.”

The drone information can also be used to determine the amount of chemical spraying for insects and weeds. “You can scan 140 acres in 20 to 30 minutes,” Speakman said.

Willard has not offered or implemented the service companywide but has employed it on farms checked by Speakman. The company “is allowing me to move forward with development,” he said. “I’m the farmer; [Murray] is the tech guy.

“It’s a nice marriage of technology and practicality,” he said. “The end result is a better yield – for wheat, corn, barley, and soybeans – and more yield is more money.”

Unmanned aircraft can inexpensively stay aloft for hours and have been used extensively by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. But rules governing their use in the civilian world have been slow in coming.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has held hearings over spying concerns, and in January, a recreational drone – a quad-copter – crashed on the White House lawn.

Many of the safety concerns are being addressed by Sunhillo in West Berlin, which has focused on air traffic management, communications, and other issues.

“We’re doing the research and development for the next generational use of UAS’s,” said Steve Iaquinto Jr., Sunhillo’s vice president of operations and chief security officer. “We want to share the skies with manned aircraft.

“But there’s still a ton of work left to be done,” said Iaquinto, a former New Jersey Army National Guard officer who used drones to track Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and plan combat operations.

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