It's a bird. No. It's a unidentified flying object. No. It's a drone or unmanned aerial system – specifically a PrecisionHawk Lancaster Mark IV Platform UAS. And it'll soon be flying the countryside skies of north central New York as part of a crop scouting and field research project cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration.
It's one of two drones that'll be flying under the flag of the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, headquartered at Griffiss International Airport, Rome, N.Y. A partnering research project will test drone capabilities out of Massachusetts' Joint Base Cape Cod.
The flight plan
Safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system is the number one priority, says U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. And he adds: "The ag research at Rome also may have far-reaching benefits to farmers in New York and across the nation."
In New York, Cornell Cooperative Extension regional agronomists on the Northwest New York team are collaborating with farmers in all 10 of the counties to evaluate a wide variety of field crops. They're also partnering with ag consulting companies, Cornell faculty, and industry representatives.
"Our primary objectives are to 1) evaluate the ability of the UAS to perform various crop scouting tasks and 2) to enhance current on-farm research efforts with aerial imagery gathered from a UAS," explains Bill Verbeten, regional agronomist involved in the project. A variety of sensors will be used on a UAS purchased from Precision Hawk.
Preliminary flights out of both facilities will begin this fall. Pending FAA approval, the team will conduct intensive field evaluations during the 2015 season throughout western New York.
Specific UAS projects include detection of insects, weeds, diseases, crop characteristics, crop biomass and background soil characteristics in two farm fields. Flights will take place at or below 400 feet, and will last up to 60 minutes from takeoff to landing.
They'll be repeated as needed to take geospatially-referenced imagery as part of the agricultural research. Eventually, the site also will manage UAS flights from Joint Base Cape Cod.
"Data the Griffiss team plans to acquire and share will help the FAA in researching the complexities of integrating UAS into the congested Northeast airspace," adds FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. The project is one of a small group of flight authorizations that doesn't require the UAV user to obtain a FAA pilot's certificate for operation.
This FAA approval "represents a very strategic and exciting step forward by the FAA," notes PrecisionHawk spokesperson Lia Reich. "By allowing the users, in this case the research teams at Cornell, to forgo the time and financial resources it requires to obtain a private pilot's license, our UAV platform will be available for data collection at the team's operational convenience – exactly the use-case we created it for." The platform provides fast and accurate data with more than 15 plug-and-play sensors for visual, multispectral, thermal, video and LIDAR.