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UAVs: Not just for show

drone in air
PRAGMATIC APPROACH: UNL research is underway to use a UAS to monitor plant water stress and enhance irrigation scheduling and variable-rate irrigation systems.
Beyond putting on a flashy, high-tech display, where do unmanned aircraft fit in Nebraska agriculture?

Most who know me know that I’m hardly what you could call a sports fan. However, I do manage to watch a few college football games each year — especially the day after Thanksgiving when the Hawkeyes play the Huskers, and the Super Bowl. I’d be lying if I said I watched any of the Winter Olympics, but I did watch a YouTube video of the opening ceremony, featuring a synchronized display of over 1,200 drones, or unmanned aerial systems.

We’ve heard talk about the potential use of drones in commercial industry for several years, including in agriculture. But up until now, UAS technology in agriculture has largely been limited to flashy displays like the one seen during the opening ceremony — itself a prerecorded act.

However, researchers and early adopters continue to push for practical ways to put UAS to use in ag.

One of the hurdles up until a couple years ago was the lack of clear rules and regulation. That changed when the Federal Aviation Administration implemented Part 107 operating requirements for UAS. This can still be a challenge for growers who just want a quick look-see above the field.

“That becomes a challenge because the requirements to get a Part 107 pilot’s certificate are fairly extensive for a typical producer that wants to just pop one of these up in the air and take a look,” says Wayne Woldt, University of Nebraska-Lincoln water resources engineer who is leading UAS research at UNL. “I’m advocating for something like a Part 107 Ag certificate that would require maybe an internet study, and provide a more attainable method that still helps convey important aspects of flying UAS.”

One of the biggest challenges — especially for those of us living in vast, sometimes sparsely populated states like Nebraska — is broadband or cellular connectivity.

Agriculture is already a big user of the internet of things, and that will be more so the case moving forward. Those in agriculture rely on broadband for cloud storage of data, online platforms for remote management, access to timely market data, and yes, quick access to remote-sensed imagery and imagery processing. There are 272,000 people in Nebraska without access to a wired connection capable of 25 megabits per second download speeds, according to BroadBandNow statistics.

This is something legislators at the state and national level have been working to expand, however, and connectivity will hopefully improve in the near future.

Perhaps the biggest challenge from the producer’s standpoint is putting the data to work.

“When you want to do real estate photography for example, it’s a pretty cut-and-dried application and fairly straightforward. The adoption rate is moving pretty fast,” Woldt says. “In the agronomic area, it’s not quite as straightforward at this time. That’s where research is coming into play. There’s still a lot of unresolved questions about agronomic applications.”

In the ag world, it’s about collecting high-level data to make decisions. And at the moment, there isn’t an easy answer for how the individual grower can best analyze this data and put it to use in a timely manner – although there are several service providers with the tools and capabilities to help generate a decision in-season. Part of the challenge is time management, while another factor is the aforementioned issue with connectivity. Another challenge is simply understanding what you’re seeing on the imagery and how it translates into agronomy.

However, there are opportunities on the horizon. Research is underway at UNL, including at the West Central Research and Extension Center and the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center, to use UAS to monitor plant water stress and enhance irrigation scheduling and variable-rate irrigation systems. Meanwhile, the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network is putting UASs to work to monitor trials using multi-hybrid planting, nitrogen rates and timings, and different seed treatments.

Woldt notes that agriculture is projected to be the biggest user of UAS technology — with around 70% of the market going toward the ag world. It may not be the norm yet, but these kinds of examples illustrate how UAS and other kinds of aerial imagery will hopefully be more than a flash display in agriculture.

TAGS: Technology
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