UAV Use and Popularity Soaring

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have been gaining attention in the mainstream media in recent years as hobbyists, researchers and entrepreneurs push to find the best uses and legal practices for the now popular devices. The concept has been around for nearly a century, and it seems the technology, affordability and demand have finally come together, piquing the interest of many model plane hobbyists and specialty tech companies looking to create a niche in the industry.

Jim Love works at Beck’s Hybrids and has been involved in key technology projects over his 25 year tenure. His experience flying model airplanes as a kid made him take notice of an UAV at a farm show last year and triggered his interest in seeing where the UAV industry is going and how it can be applicable to agriculture.

“I saw the plane at a farm show and thought it could solve a lot of timeliness problems we have had with remote sensing and be a dependable platform,” said Love. “I came back to the organization and told them UAVs may have finally matured into a setup we should start studying.”

Choosing several seemingly reputable companies, they started intensely looking at the products and found a great deal of difference in quality and capabilities of available UAVs on the market. For now, agricultural uses generally fit into either a simple or complex information gathering category. Simple UAVs, being compared to a flying camera, gather aerial images of fields to see obvious issues that could likely be found by scouting the fields on foot. The more advanced, or higher tech UAVs can gather a very detailed georeferenced image or a map image based on the Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI).

The more basic images can provide simple visual information about the state of plants and are more subjective to the individual who is viewing them. Complex images based on the NDVI provide more extensive quantitative data that can be more easily compared and assessed by multiple users as it is a standardized system. The georeferenced images are more expensive to obtain and there are fewer people who do them well, but once in the growers hand they can become a valuable tool and one piece of the “big data” that is out there today.

“There are a lot of hobbyists trying to turn it into a job. Typically they are good at taking a picture, but they’re not getting a georeferenced image nor anything quantitative like a NDVI image,” said Love. “Everyone thinks you’re paying for the hardware, but you’re paying for the intellectual property, the hardware is a miniscule part. Once people wrap their mind around that, then they get it – what I’m really paying for is what these people know and what they can do.”

“That georeferenced data can be loaded into a computer and a grower can spot anomalies within the image and walk right to that spot to confirm it. Or in theory, if you had an integrated system, you could fly it with your small airplane, build your map and tell your small device to go out and look at the field, zoom in and get a really close picture of it from that point,” said Love. “Nobody has that system combined yet, but there are some companies that are very capable; it’s just a matter of them putting it all together.”

With georeferenced images, nutrient deficiencies often show up with nitrogen misapplication being the easiest to spot. Combining images and maps derived from UAVs with other data gathering devices such as yield monitors could allow for additional advancements in variable rate technology with herbicide, fertilizer and seeding practices.

The UAVs themselves have proved useful in other aspects such as herbicide or pesticide application in other parts of the world, such as spraying rice paddies in Japan. Here in the United States, UAVs are still illegal for commercial use without an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“Rice is flooded so it’s typically sprayed with aerial equipment, but the paddies are so small that they can’t spray them with a full sized plane so they use an unmanned helicopter,” said Love. “Here, with the vineyards being so oddly shaped, and the ones in California that are on hillsides, they can’t use full sized planes and it’s difficult to do with a tractor. They are wanting to use UAVs, but it’s not legal.”

The legal battle with UAVs is being staged against the FAA, one company at a time; and the FAA has started to grant exemptions. Of the hundreds of applications for exemption they have seen, in the last six months, less than 50 have been approved. Several of the exemptions granted deal with precision technology applications in agriculture.

While they are taking steps towards more open use of UAVs in the marketplace, it is a difficult sector to navigate without extensive regulation. There have been a considerable amount of mainstream news stories where UAVs are misused or used for illegal activities. Fortunately, many of the companies who manufacture the devices and develop the software are responding with modifications to self-regulate the use.

“They are very proactive, when something goes wrong they usually go in and manipulate their software. All of those devices are flying off of a computer, so they are able to tell the software: don’t fly here, don’t fly above this height. It basically takes a hacker to unlock it, so that helps the government. Instead of having to come up with all kinds of crazy rules they can’t enforce anyway, if the manufacturer will build fail safes in that will help the government in their quest to keep the airspace safe,” said Love.

FAA exemptions come with conditions that typically include having a licensed pilot and a visual observer present, maintaining a line of sight, staying below 400 feet and not operating within 500 feet of any person or structure.

Photo credit: SenseFly