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Promise of UAV as Crop Scouting Tool Highlighted at Ohlde Seed Farms Field Day

It may be
a few years before you pilot your own unmanned aerial vehicle over farm fields
as a scouting tool, but farmers are finding value in the quality and speed of
data that UAVs can gather.

Shane
Ohlde, manager of Ohlde Seed Farms in Palmer, Kansas, had a company called
RoboFlight fly over wheat fields to determine the effectiveness of fungicide on
winter wheat for the 2014 crop. He sees promise in using UAVs as another set of
data to spot problem areas within his north-central Kansas fields.

Ohlde
invited Kevin Price, senior vice president of applied research/technology
development at RoboFlight, to his seed company's annual Technology Day on
August 20.

Based in
Des Moines, RoboFlight is becoming one of the nation's leaders in a growing
agricultural UAV industry, which is expected to generate $13.6 billion in
revenue in three years and create nearly 10,000 jobs in the agriculture
industry alone by 2025.


How
UAVs Work

Small
UAVs fly above farm fields, grabbing high-resolution imagery of fields from a
bird's-eye view. UAVs can scout a field in minutes through the air;
that same field could take a farmer or crop scout hours to evaluate from the
ground. It gathers data through remote sensing, measuring light reflection from
the plant's photosynthesis to determine plant health, or lack thereof.

RoboFlight
is among the companies who build drones for agricultural use and can sort
through the data generated by the UAVs. For example, RoboFlight can combine
high-resolution, geo-referenced NDVI (normalized difference vegetative index)
maps with other data-driven maps, such as nutrient recommendation, yield maps,
variable-rate seeding maps, and more.

The
company also generates remote-sensing information using small airplanes.

Data
gathered by the machine in flight is analyzed by the company's digital image
processing team, which provides NDVI maps to customers within a few days.

"We
can hand usable data to a crop scout. He or she can look at anomalies, or
patterns indicative of something going on in the field," Price says.

Ultimately,
drone-derived data can help farmers and crop scouts build management zones
using NDVI imagery, he adds.

A former
faculty member at Kansas State University, Price used UAVs to conduct rapid
phenotyping (evaluation) of new wheat varieties for wheat breeder Allan Fritz,
who has lines growing in 2,000 plots near the university. On the ground, Fritz
and his team spend hundreds of hours scouting plots; the UAVs take just a few
minutes to provide high-resolution imagery with which the wheat breeder can
make accurate decisions.

Moreover,
the aerial imagery provides a bird's-eye view perspective, which is helpful in
determining potential problem areas.

"Unless
you are above the field, you're not really scouting," Price says. 


Buying
your own

RoboFlight
is just one company that provides fly-over and data-analysis services, but
farmers may wish to buy their own UAV.

There are
two platforms available: 

  • Fixed
    Wing: G
    enerally offers longer flight times and is much faster, fewer moving
    parts. More durable. Requires training.
  • Multiple
    Rotor: More precise control with vertical lift and landing. More parts, thus
    requiring more maintenance. Does not require as much classroom training.

Flying
UAVs requires practice, but it's fairly simple. In a crop scouting application, a
flight map is computer-generated, transferred to the UAV's onboard computer,
and the aircraft is ready to fly.

A good
place to start is to join a local flying club, which can teach the basics of
flying a UAV. He recommends talking to one of the UAV companies specializing in
agriculture to receive training on how to fly farm fields, the equipment needed
to gather data, and how to collect information that provides value.

Price adds
that the FAA allows the use of UAVs provided the aircraft flies no higher than
400 feet; is not piloted out of the line of sight of the operator and is not
within 3 to 5 miles of an airport.

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