Flying into the Future
Whether you call them unmanned aviation systems (UAS) or unmanned aviation vehicles (UAV) or the more common designation of drone, the eye in the sky may be the next tool in the agricultural arsenal of the 21st century farmer.
For almost 100 years aviation has been a tool in the agriculture farm shed. The first documented use of an airplane as a crop duster in the U.S. was in 1921 in Ohio. Since then aerial applications have become a common component in agriculture.
The UAS or drone technology, first developed for use in the defense industry, has crossed over and is being developed for multiple uses in the civil airspace of the U.S.
From new applications in agriculture to home delivery of packages, the aircraft are being heralded in the media as another example of the advancing pace of technology in our daily lives.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of online retailer Amazon, recently made headlines when he predicted that within five years Amazon would be using UAS technology to make home deliveries.
Bezos may be premature with his five-year prediction, but commercial application of UAS in civil airspace is no longer a story line confined to science fiction novels.
Universities around the country are actively involved in UAS research. From the University of California at Davis to Michigan State University to Kansas State University and Oregon State University’s (OSU) Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center (HAREC) researchers are exploring how to utilize UAS along with the latest innovations in digital photography and GPS technology to improve agricultural efficiencies.
The past summer proved to be an “interesting one,” according to Phil Hamm, director of OSU’s HAREC. Hamm said that the constant demand of media requests about the UAS operations at HAREC and issues related to security kept the staff on their toes all summer.
“The sky’s the limit,” Hamm has said more than once when asked to assess the potential of UAS. “We already know that infrared photography is useful. We’ve used it for several decades. The question is: ‘how can we take pictures that have much better resolution at a much smaller scale and how we might use it differently than color infrared that we’ve used before.’”
Hamm said that the higher resolution of digital technology will allow researchers and growers to quickly identify diseases and insects. With that information growers would be able to apply insecticides, herbicides or fungicides to specific areas in a field.
Hamm said that the day could come when a UAS could identify Colorado potato beetles in four separate locations in a field and instead of waiting until the economic threshold of the pest is met to treat the field a grower could treat the specific areas within the circle.
“If you have the way to treat a small area, then the cost of treatment is small,” Hamm said. “The economic thresholds that came into play are no longer ones used and then you’re looking at a whole lot of cost savings.”
Hamm envisions a merger of technology. With a UAS using wavelength identification and GPS coordinates, growers would be able to pinpoint diseases or pests and with ground rovers or unmanned ground vehicles respond to the problem with minimal input cost. The grower could even make the application directly from a sprayer.
Don Hornek, OSU Extension Service agronomist, was the lead researcher working on the UAS project at HAREC. Hornek collaborated with Ray Hunt, a plant physiologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md.
Hornek said that researchers were looking nutrient and water management last year through multiple wavelengths, not just infrared, to recognize differences out in the field.
“We want to be able to sense something going wrong before our eyes can recognize it, whether its irrigation deficit, fertility deficit or something else,” Hornek said.
Hornek said that they may be able to one day identify plant disease or insects by their wavelength signature long before the disease or pest becomes a problem.
Both Hamm and Hornek said a major obstacle is how to parse all the information accumulated by the UAS.
“You can take these UAV photos pretty easily,” Hornek said. “The problem is sewing the pieces together, and finding the software to analyze and detect the problems.”
“The real problem is the amount of information being generated from all the pictures,” Hamm said.
It’s not the 2,000 photos of healthy plants but the two or three photos where there’s a problem or disease that a grower wants to see, he said.
Hornek cited two other issues of concern in the U.S for UAS operations: invasion of privacy and the fact that anyone can purchase a UAS on the Internet, attach a GoPro camera and begin flying their own UAS.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees rules and regulations of governing the national air space (NAS). A UAS operator must have either a commercial pilot’s license or a certificate of authorization from the FAA.
The FAA created the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office and published the Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System Roadmap in 2013 to facilitate the integration of UAS safely into the NAS.
Current FAA regulations for manned aircraft apply to unmanned aircraft. The FAA’s roadmap states that, “removing the pilot from the aircraft creates a series of performance considerations between manned and unmanned aircraft that need to be fully researched and understood to determine acceptability and potential impact on safe operations in the NAS.”
On Dec. 30, 2013, the FAA announced the selection of six locations for the development of UAS research and test sites: University of Alaska; state of Nevada; Griffiss International airport in Rome, N.Y.; North Dakota Department of Commerce; Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi; and Virginia Tech University.
Randy Franzen has had his pilot’s license for 15 years. In 2011 he graduated from Kansas State University’s UAS program. He spent the following year in Afghanistan flying tethered drones above the Khyber Pass. This past year he was in charge of flying the delta winged Unicorn for the OSU research project.
Franzen emphasized that UAS is about more than just the aircraft.
“You need to focus on the entire system,” Franzen said. “You have to tie it with the computers, you have to tie it with the pictures, with the lenses. You’re using the entire process.”
Franzen said that when he launches his UAS he is in communication with air traffic controllers at the local airport, so that other pilots are aware of his presence in the airspace.
Safety in the airspace is a primary concern for Leif Isaacson, the 2014 president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA). Isaacson, of Terreton, Idaho, is the owner of Desert Air Ag, an aerial application business.
“UAS’s will be operating in airspace where aerial applicators, life flight, power line, border patrol and other low level aircraft operations occur,” Isaacson said. “These unmanned vehicles will be difficult, if not impossible to see because of their size, yet could be fatal if a collision occurs.”
According to Isaacson UAS technology is advancing faster than the government can implement rules and regulations to keep pace with the technology.
Isaacson said that his organization is working with the FAA to safely integrate UAS into airspace that is already occupied with many forms of aviation.
“These things are not toys,” he said. “They can do complex tasks that were only dreamed of a few years ago. We need to embrace the technology but want to make sure they do not have deadly consequences to those of us who operate in the same airspace.”