Ag specialist talks UAS research effort for crops, weeds, cattle

By Ann Bailey | October 15, 2015

As precision agricultural images captured this year by UAS-mounted cameras are being analyzed by North Dakota State researchers, Agricultural Machines Specialist John Nowatzki is looking ahead at how to best use UAS in next year’s research.

Nowatzki is working to develop a partnership with a UAS company that will fly a large UAV over farm fields in a 160-square mile area between Hillsboro, N.D., and Cooperstown, N.D.  The UAS, which has a wing span of 30 feet and would fly at an attitude of 5,280, feet, would have a camera mounted to it which would take images crops including soybeans, edible beans, sugar beets, wheat and potatoes. The UAS also would fly over cattle located on the western edge of the area and take counts of the animals, Nowatzki said.

A small UAS with a camera mounted to it, meanwhile, would fly over part of that 160-sqauare mile area and also take images, Nowatzki said.  The images taken by cameras on the large UAS and the small UAS would be compared to see which ones were the most useful for research.

Images being analyzed this fall by NDSU researchers vary from determining nitrogen deficiencies in corn to identifying weeds. Using UAS images to get to the bottom of production problems sometimes presents challenges because a plant’s disease symptom can be the result of more than one problem.

For example, whether yellowed corn is a result of nitrogen deficiencies or a result of other factors such as excessive moisture or iron chlorosis is difficult to discern from looking at an image, Nowatzki said.

“As it exists now, in the next few years, and maybe, forever, we will have to have that person on the ground, walking,” he said.

Nowatzki is confident UAS will play a role in production agriculture in the future.

“I think it definitely will be a common application in farming,” he said.

Unmanned aerial systems also have rural applications outside of agriculture.

The research NDSU conducted during the summer of 2015, did not just focus on agricultural production, but also, at the request of the Barnes County (N.D.) Weed Board, looked at identification of yellow toad stool, spotted knapweed and purple loosestrife, all classified as noxious weeds in North Dakota, Nowatski said.