Kansas State using drones to improve agriculture, human health

By Patrick C. Miller | September 20, 2018

Prescribed burns are used in the agriculture industry to maintain the productivity of the land, but the smoke these burns produce can also impact human health.

Kansas State University researchers are using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to help improve the environment and human health while balancing the livelihood of farmers and ranchers. It’s part of a three-year collaborative project—funded by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment—involving academia, NASA scientists, meteorologists, ranchers, environmentalists and KSU drone pilots.

"We want to have our data be useful for keeping fire as a practice that is both ecologically acceptable and socially acceptable in the Great Plains," said Carol Baldwin, the project leader and a KSU research and extension associate in the College of Agriculture.

The team is collaborating with a Flint Hills rancher to gather data during typical tallgrass prescribed burns. The researchers have attached sensors on unmanned aircraft to gather air quality information during a burn.

The information they gather is helping NASA verify satellite data products and is facilitating collaboration between the Kansas health department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve the Kansas Flint Hills Smoke Management Plan. The plan was implemented in 2011 and helps ranchers make decisions about the best days to burn without negatively affecting human health, particularly in metropolitan areas. 

When the weather conditions are right, spring burning at Flint Hills affects air quality in Wichita, Topeka, Kansas City and metropolitan areas in Nebraska and Oklahoma. The poor air quality affects those with asthma and other health problems.

However, Baldwin—an expert in grassland range management—said the fire is a necessary component of maintaining the integrity of the tallgrass prairie landscape. "If we take fire and grazing out of the ecosystem, we will not have prairies as we know them,” she explained. “We will end up with a scrubby woodland."

According to Baldwin, the problem is that current smoke management models, such as the Flint Hills plan, use data from fires in other parts of the U.S., not the Great Plains. To test a prescribed burn, the researchers are working with rancher Jane Koger, who has allowed them to collect data before, during and after the annual burns on her ranchland.

UAS pilots gather smoke emissions from a controlled burn by flying three unmanned aircraft into the smoke above the fires. The drones use continuous sensors and sample sensors to measure particles and ozone-causing chemicals. They also use thermal imaging to measure fire temperature. The continuous sensors use lasers to take measurements and send data, including particle concentration, ozone levels, temperature and humidity. The sample sensors have a small bag to gather and bring back air particulate samples that are analyzed for particulate matter, as well as nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compound levels.

Travis Balthazor, UAS flight operations manager, is leading the team of 12 trained UAS pilots, which includes researchers and students with the KSU Polytechnic Campus. The students are getting real-world experience through the project, Balthazor said.

"This is outside the realm of our normal box, so this is an effort that benefits us in the long run," Balthazor said. "As far as operating aircraft and looking to the future of unmanned aircraft, everybody wants to fly beyond line of sight and they want to fly higher. We are getting a taste of that with this project."

Doug Watson, air monitoring and planning chief with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said, "It is our hope that ranchers in the Flint Hills will use these tools to plan their burns so they do not impact air quality downwind from the fire. At the same time, we want to educate the metropolitan areas about the importance of the Flint Hills ecosystem and the reasons why the ranchers burn to maintain that ecosystem."