Unmanned aerial vehicles for precision agriculture

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There has been a surge in interest in the development and use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for agricultural and environmental applications. News media reports indicate that the agriculture industry could potentially be the largest user of this technology. Most of the practical applications of UAVs so far have occurred in Europe and in countries like Canada, Australia and Japan where there are fewer airspace regulations compared to United States. Use of UAVs for commercial purposes is prohibited in the United States; only hobbyists are allowed to fly small, radio-controlled airplanes for recreational purposes.

Currently, there are two broad platforms for UAVs, namely the ‘Fixed Wing’ and ‘Rotary Wing’ (copter) types. Fixed wing UAVs have the advantage of being able to fly at high speeds for long durations with simpler aerodynamic features. Some of them do not even require a runway or launcher for takeoff and landing. The rotary wing UAVs have the advantage of being able to take off and land vertically and hover over a target. However, because of mechanical complexity and shortened battery power, they have a short flight range.

These UAVs fly up to an altitude of 400 feet and are able to follow the same path or GPS-guided routes daily, weekly or as desired. Cameras gather images with normal light, infrared or thermal, still photos or video formats. These images are digitized, geo-referenced and mapped. Crop consultants and farmers can use this information to scout crops, detect nutrient deficiencies, assess flood or drought damage, forecast weather patterns, monitor wildlife and even locate cattle in distant pastures. Research also reveals that UAV can be used for detecting atmospheric microbes and air pollution. Spot-spraying chemicals and micronutrients is another use.

Some major non-agricultural uses of UAVs include news reporting, photography, surveillance, traffic control, real estate and search and rescue missions. Satellite images are currently used for remote sensing, but they are costly and do not have the desired resolution. Satellite images are also affected by cloud cover.

Because of the growing interest and potential demand for this technology, the U.S. Congress has directed the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to write regulations on how the UAV technology can be used for commercial purposes and specify restrictions for their use. The progress has been slow, however, because of public safety and privacy concerns, and objections from consumer rights groups. The FAA currently allows special certifications for non-profit organizations such as universities and the military to test whether these devices can safely be integrated into the national air space. The expectation is that the FAA will formulate these regulations sometime next year.

Delays in drafting guidelines and the legislative debate process can stifle research and development of this technology by local designers and entrepreneurs. Dozens of U.S. companies have already invested and are competing in the global UAV market. The UAV industry has the potential to provide thousands of high-tech jobs in this country.

Members of the Capital Area Innovative Farmers (CAIF) group in Lansing, Mich., together with Michigan State University Extension, have proactively engaged in consultations with a Canadian UAV company and MSU Department of Geography GIS unit to seek ways to collaborate in the future. This company has solicited the input of CAIF members for custom designing their UAVs. To further this cooperation, the CAIF farmers are planning an educational tour of this facility in the spring of 2014.

To read about research done at MSU, see the article “MSU Lands First Drone.”


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