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Drones on the Farm: FAA Opened the Gates with New Regs


Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) are no longer toys. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has finally let them out of the box. Now, they are officially tools.

After several years of delay, the FAA issued regulations that give farmers a clear path to commercial use of autonomous flying vehicles. The new regulations went into effect Aug. 29. Prior to the regs, many farmers played with UASs (also called drones and UAVs). Some farmers used them in the regulatory shadows; and some even gained an official exemption from the FAA to use them commercially. But now that rules are on the table, UASs are legally available to a broad customer base for scouting, mapping and decision-making.

The systems come with rotors; they come with wings. They have video cameras, still cameras and cameras that see the world through a near-infrared filter. Some UASs can send images to the cloud even as they fly over fields. Others rely on memory sticks to bring back images of fields that can be stitched together and the data analyzed to help with management decisions. Ranchers can use them to locate roaming cattle. Irrigators can use UASs to pinpoint problem areas in a rig. Crop-insurance adjusters can use them to make assessments of crop damage.

Lee Scheufler, who farms near Sterling, Kansas, has seen a dramatic change in drone use in the past two years. Since 2014, he has attended three UAS workshops sponsored by the Kansas Ag Research and Technology Association (KARTA). This year’s was held on his farm, and he noticed a key difference from earlier events. “At first, it was a ‘gee whiz, let’s watch these things fly’ sort of thing,” he says of the flying vehicles. During the first two workshops, data collection and management from aerial imaging were not well developed; the flights were fun exercises, but not really useful. Now, Scheufler says, “The progress in data management has been incredible.”

As the UAS world evolves, here’s a look at today’s scene.

THE PLAYERS

It seemed about half the 40 or so attendees at the workshop on Scheufler’s farm this spring were farmers. The rest were service providers: crop consultants, equipment dealers or UAS vendors. A few were just curious. That mix might be indicative of who will use UASs in the future.

Although many farmers could jump into the UAS arena with both feet, some will hesitate. They might not see sufficient value in the data a drone can generate. Or, some farmers will find the process of flying, collecting data and turning it into useful information to be too time-consuming.

Consider Ben Hendrix, whose family farms a sophisticated blend of edible beans, hay, corn and other crops on several thousand acres, near Wray, Colorado. Hendrix experimented with a quadcopter for a while but found it had limitations: short-lived battery charges and not enough speed to cover a lot of acres. “It was not the best use of my time,” Hendrix says. He is now test-driving a satellite-imaging subscription and is “flirting with the idea” of acquiring aerial imaging from a provider using an airplane. UAS technology, Hendrix says, “is in its infancy,” and for now, he is content to watch from the sidelines as it grows up.

THIRD PARTIES

Crop consultants and other service providers such as co-ops already view UASs as valuable tools. An educated guess in the industry is that many farmers will turn to consultants and co-ops for their aerial imaging. Paul Anez, of Anez Consulting LLC, in Minnesota, has used a drone for a couple of years. It gives an “instant overview of what is going on in the field,” Anez says. For instance, one of his farmer clients sprayed fungicide on a field of struggling alfalfa; the results in the middle of the field were invisible to the naked eye, and the grower wanted an assessment of the treatment’s efficacy. With a near-infrared camera on a drone, Anez was able to document for the grower the crop’s response to the treatment.

Dozens of manufacturers and distributors now sell drones to farmers. But AGCO may be the first major equipment manufacturer to offer its dealers a UAS. The Solo AGCO Edition can fly in winds of up to 25 mph. Each fully charged battery is capable of covering up to 60 acres.

John Deere hasn’t branded a drone, but it did reach an agreement allowing Minnesota-based Sentera to distribute vehicles and software through Deere dealers.

NEW SERVICES

Other service industries are sprouting next to the UAS hangar. For instance, Agribotix is a 3-year-old Colorado-based business that has both farmer and crop-consultant customers. Jason Barton, vice president for sales, says, “We’re a software company first” that also sells UASs–both a quadcopter (Enduro) and a fixed-wing vehicle (Hornet).

As a software company, Agribotix provides services to clients who upload images to a website. Within as little as four hours, Agribotix can process the images and post files on a secure site. That data can be brought into other software programs such as Apex, SST and SMS to create variable-rate prescriptions. “You don’t have to be a software expert; you don’t have to be a GIS expert,” Barton says. “We’ll take care of it for you.”

An Agribotix customer can download processed images to his cell phone or tablet in the field to ground truth potential problems the UAS recorded during its flight. In one case, Barton relates, images processed by Agribotix showed a grower that crops under one of his irrigation rigs were not developing properly. The grower walked to the spot and found the rig was plugged. He was able to make a quick repair to mitigate a problem that otherwise he might not have seen until harvest.

THE VEHICLES

UAVs come in two basic categories: rotorcraft and fixed wings. Rotorcrafts are most often quadcopters–four whirling horizontal propellers that move the vehicle up, down and from side to side. They range from the toy category of a few ounces to about 3 pounds for agricultural uses. Batteries are both the power source and the limiting factor for flight times. A range of 15 to 20 minutes is typical. Speeds range from 30 to 55 mph.

Quadcopters carry cameras mounted on gimbals to lessen vibration.

Such UAVs can be preprogrammed to fly patterns over a field and land at a predetermined spot using GPS guidance. Or an operator can manually control the flight using an onboard camera for real-time guidance. In either case, quadcopters require little prep and setup. They take off and land vertically, and landing spots can be programmed within feet of the operator.

Prices range from a few hundred dollars to well over $4,000, depending on features and accessories.

WINGS

Fixed-wing UAVs can be more expensive but also have longer flight times, and can fly in winds of up to 30 mph. They can cover acres more quickly than quadcopters. The AgEagle RX60 (sold exclusively through Raven), for instance, has a 54-inch wingspan, weighs about 6 pounds and has a typical flight time of 60 minutes. It can cover 300 to 400 acres in a single flight.

Like quadcopters, fixed-wing UASs can be preprogrammed to fly patterns over a field and return to a landing area. With the AgEagle, flight-plan programming takes less than five minutes using a tablet and Google Earth-type imaging, company founder Bret Chilcott says.

The AgEagle package from Raven costs $17,500 plus an annual subscription for data-processing services.

More elaborate systems, such as Trimble’s UX5, come complete with more software and a laptop; it costs more than double that of an AgEagle.

Agribotix reports that its quadcopter outsells its fixed-wing vehicle even though the two are similarly priced.

THE TECHNOLOGY

The ability to rapidly process data is the most important change in UAS technology during the last three years. AgEagle, for instance, is more than a vehicle; it is a system for capturing images and processing them into useful data. Given a 4G cell signal, the AgEagle can send data/images to a secure website while it is still in the air, Chilcott says. Within minutes, stitched, georeferenced and processed images can be available on a customer’s laptop, phone or tablet.

If a UAS’s camera is outfitted with a near-infrared camera or filter, data from the images can be made into normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) maps. These can indicate the health of a growing crop and pinpoint areas of concern in a field, such as weeds, low fertility levels or a lack of soil moisture. NDVI maps can help an agronomist create variable-rate prescriptions to upload into sprayers.

Data-processing companies offer a wide variety of services for UAS customers. For example, Apis Remote Sensing Systems–which is based in Hays, Kansas–offers image stitching (mosaic), georeferencing; orthomosaic (removes distortions); 3-D modeling (shows elevations) and surface modeling (can measure volume, for example, piles of grain, gravel, feed, dirt). The company uses DroneDeploy software for many of its services. An annual subscription to the service costs $999.

Some UASs carry video and still cameras, or a single camera that can do both. Some provide live feed views so an operator can see what his drone sees. Besides near-infrared, sensors can be configured to do multispectral photography, which provides masses of data for researchers.

THE FUTURE

The technology continues to evolve.

— In the works now are thermal imaging capabilities for UAVs. Theoretically, a cattleman could hover a craft over his herd and pick up heat signatures that might indicate disease.

— Have a weed problem? Researchers are working on weed-recognition programs for UASs that will pinpoint problems and then identify the weed species to help decide how best to control them.

— Hybrid drones are not far off. They could take off and land with the ease of a quadcopter but have wings to fly with the efficiency and speed of fixed-wing vehicles.

— Imagine a drone that “lives” in your field. It could have its own storage area/recharging station and be programmed to make scheduled reconnaissance trips, load the images to a website and return to its house to recharge itself.

— Yamaha Motor Corp. recently did some test flights of a crop-spraying UAS in Napa Valley, California. The RMAX drone applied a fungicide in a vineyard for preventive control of powdery mildew.

Technology is not the only thing changing. The players also could evolve. No one has put it all together yet, says Beau Dealy, of Apis, but his company is getting close. It sells software and hardware (DJI Phantom drones), gives flying lessons and even offers “fly for service.” Apis supplies the drone and pilot; farmers supply the objectives.

Sentera also is positioning itself to be an all-things UAS provider. It offers agriculture drones, precision sensors, an app to fly a drone and software that manages all the data and creates NDVI QuickTiles in the field (without an internet connection). If your current UAV sensor does not capture the near-infrared light spectrum, Sentera can modify it to allow it to play in the NDVI field.

A UAS industry structure is still forming amidst an evolving supply and demand environment.

On the supply side: “Nobody is getting rich on drones yet,” Dealy says.

On the demand side, he advises farmers: “Don’t think pie in the sky now; just figure out what these things can really do, and set your expectations accordingly.”

Source: Jim Patrico, DTN

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