Ag researchers are planning to fly a drone over the North Dakota State University Carrington Research and Education station every week this growing season. With the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, they will be taking pictures of crops and livestock.
“It’s a proof of concept project,” says John Nowatzki, NDSU Extension agricultural machine systems specialist. NDSU and the University of North Dakota are teaming up on the project.
They will be looking to see if they can spot nitrogen deficiency, iron deficiency chlorosis and other crop ailments from the air, and whether they can see symptoms from the air before they are visible from the ground.
They will also be trying to see if the UAV can identify weeds from the air. They are growing some of the major weeds found in North Dakota in a greenhouse now and taking pictures of them to load into a software program that will be used to analyze the UAV images.
On the livestock side, the UAV will be taking thermal images of the cattle to see animals that might be ill and need treatment can be identified. They will also be trying to see if they can measure temperature differences between different types of bedding used in livestock pens, which is one of the research projects underway at the station.
You’re cleared to fly
You, too, could be trying UAVs. The Federal Aviation Administration has cleared farmers to use UAV. You can’t fly them above 400 feet in altitude, though. You also have to be at least three miles away from any airport and you have to maintain visual contact with the UAV.
The electric powered UAVs for agriculture are currently pretty small – most are only 1 to 3 feet wide -- but they aren’t cheap. Prices begin around $1,000 for a manually controlled rotor copter that will only stay up in the air for 15-20 minutes. It doesn’t look very durable, Nowatzki says.
Durability is important. “It’s not a matter of if you are going to crash, but when,” he says.
Ones that have autopilot systems (you program in the field coordinates and the desired flight altitude and the UAV flies a pattern over the field and lands at your feet when it is done) are more expensive. At the recent International Crop Expo in Grand Forks, N.D., Nowatzki showed pictures of models that cost $3,800, $17,000, $35,000 and $50,000. NDSU will be using a $50,000 model.
Then there’s the camera and other equipment that’s needed. A multi-spectral camera costsd $3,800; a thermal imaging camera, $10,000; and image processing software, $3,800.
There is a company offering UAV scouting services this year in North Dakota. Cost is around $8 per acre, Nowatzki says.
Apparently the sky’s limit for how UAVs might be used in agriculture. Nowatzki says he got a call from a Japanese company asking about the potential market for applying pesticides with UAVs.
“I didn’t see how they would compete with aerial application,” Nowatzki says, “but they told me that half the rice fields a Japan are sprayed with UAVs. “
Imagine having a fleet of UAVs that go out in the morning and spray fields and return to the shop on their own – automatically.“I encourage you to keep watching this,” Nowatzki says.