U.S.-based precision ag UAV progress

By UAS Magazine Staff | September 17, 2015

When Elbit Systems of America LLC’s large unmanned aircraft vehicle flies over the ag fields of rural North Dakota, the Israel-based, global UAV player’s unmanned platform will be the largest ever to operate specifically for precision ag purposes.  The company has matched a North Dakota Department of Commerce Research ND grant to collect crop data using infrared, thermal, color and multi-spectral imagery. The grant and matching fund—totaling $715,092—will allow Elbit’s team to work with North Dakota State University’s agricultural and biosystems engineering team to analyze the data at the Center for Computationally Assisted Science and Technology.

In Washington, another global UAV entity is finding a foothold in the U.S. After providing precision spraying services in Japan’s rice fields for more than a decade, Yamaha and its RMAX unmanned helicopter will be working with cherry tree farmers. Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, along with a private UAV firm, Digital Harvest, have worked in collaboration to bring the RMAX to orchards in need of help from moisture accumulations. During the last two weeks prior to harvest, the skin of the cherry is sensitive to moisture and can crack or split if moisture is left untreated. Orchard owners typically rent a helicopter and rely on prop wash to dry the cherries. Researchers at Washington State University performed a demonstration flight earlier this year for 15 orchard owners using the RMAX. The purpose was to test the RMAX’s ability to provide adequate downrush on the cherry trees in place of the more expensive, more dangerous helicopters. Results to date have been promising, according to Lav Khot, assistant professor for CPAAS.

To test the effectiveness of any drone deployed for farming purposes, a likely entity, a drone startup and an information provider have partnered to provide a precision ag return on investment calculator. Farm Bureau Federation, Informa Economics and Measure have created a calculator that quantifies three drone applications: field crop scouting, 3D terrain mapping and crop insurance. The calculator is specifically designed for corn, soybeans and wheat, but more crops and applications will be added over time, according to Measure, the drones and a service company that will house the calculator on its website. “While lots of drone hardware has been sold to farmers, until today, no tool existed to help growers actually quantify whether the benefits exceed their costs, especially farmers  that want to outsource these types of services,” said Justin Oberman, Measure’s president.