UAVs Could Be Game Changers for Growers and Consultants

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From Cotton Grower Magazine – June 2014

 

There’s an increasing buzz in the air as the number of potential commercial uses for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – commonly known as drones – continues to grow.

Agriculture has long been considered one of the top markets for UAV use. It’s certainly one of the top priorities in the first Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test site for UAV research now underway in North Dakota. The site, which became operational more than 2 ½ months ahead of schedule, is the first of six test sites across the U.S. chosen by FAA for UAV research. Their goals – to show that UAVs can check soil quality and crop status as a precision agriculture tool and to collect safety-related operational data needed to help integrate UAVs into U.S. airspace.

“These data will lay the groundwork for reducing risks and ensuring continued safe operations of UAVs,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, in a statement as the testing began in late April. “We believe the test site programs will be extremely valuable to integrating unmanned aircraft and fostering America’s leadership in advancing this technology.”

According to a report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), agriculture will account for an estimated 80 percent of all UAV usage when the FAA finalizes regulations for commercial use. “Unmanned aircraft are a well-suited technology to allow the farming community to collect reliable information in a safe and efficient manner,” said Gretchen West, AUVSI executive vice president.

That’s all fine and promising, you may say. But how can this impact my farming operation? Or more importantly – how can I get my hands on one?

Good Fit for Cotton

Dr. Ed Barnes, senior director, agricultural and environmental research for Cotton Incorporated, believes the use of UAVs could be a game changer for agriculture and for cotton.

“We have to look at the history of imagery in agriculture and how it’s evolved over time,” said Barnes. “Anything that has been successful using manned aircraft or a satellite as a platform should still be a good starting point.

“In cotton, we learned that imagery can definitely help us do a better job of identifying parts of a field to help us better manage plant growth regulators, defoliants and other inputs,” he continued. “All of these things will still be on the table with UAVs. With satellites and airplanes, we were happy if we got image sizes that were three feet by three feet. The thing that’s interesting about UAVs is that they can provide much higher resolution than we’re used to.”

Barnes can envision a scenario where a consultant might use a coarse image to identify areas of variability within a field, and then deploy a UAV for a closer look to help determine potential issues.

“This could be a very valuable tool for consultants to expand what they can offer to their clients.”

Jim Steadman is Field and Online Editor for Cotton Grower magazine. He has spent more than 35 years in agricultural writing and marketing.
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