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Panel Gets Up Close With Drones

A little imagination goes a long way in coming up with new and practical uses for drones. Just don’t call them the “D” word.

More than 100 guests weighed in Tuesday on the emerging technology as part of a panel discussion, “They’re not Drones: Potatoes and the Future of Unmanned Aircraft,” hosted by the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce.

Historically speaking, the panel said the word “drone” refers to an unmanned military vehicle used for target practice. But these aircraft have budding potential in everything from monitoring crops to tracking wildlife and mapping the course of a destructive forest fire.

“It doesn’t take a lot to start thinking outside the box,” said Phil Hamm, one of three panelists and director of the Oregon State University Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

The hour-long Q-and-A comes as OSU begins its own experiments flying a pair of drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles — over acres of potato fields at the Hermiston station, as well as another private farm located west of Boardman.

Project leaders hope the vehicles, leased from Boeing Co. and outfitted with small infrared cameras, can detect unhealthy plants in the fields much sooner than growers might otherwise spot on the ground. Infrared light is reflected stronger by healthy plants, which could indicate where certain crops are underwatered or underfertilized.

“When plants aren’t happy, they look different, but not necessarily different to our eyes,” Hamm said. “We want to recognize plants that aren’t happy before there’s a reduction in yield.”

Joining Hamm on the panel were Dan Gadler, contract services engineer with Boeing Research & Technology, and Josh Brungardt, director of unmanned aerial systems for the Bend-based startup company PARADIGM that specializes in UAV data collection.

Brungardt, a former instructor pilot for the U.S. Air Force and founder of the country’s first academic program in drone technology at Kansas State University, described the aircraft as automated to the point that they can even take off and land on their own.

All the pilot needs is to pre-program flight paths into an on-board computer, which defines the “virtual fence” over an area where drones are specifically approved to fly, Brungardt said. The cameras are situated underneath the aircraft, facing directly down toward the ground below.

Still, Brungardt knows people are worried for their privacy.

“We’ve been to Salem quite a few times to meet with our representatives and take the misnomers out of (drones),” Brungardt said. “A lot of it is based in perception, and not reality.”

The panel brought both drones used in the OSU experiments for display, allowing guests to take an up-close look for themselves. One aircraft, the HawkEye, is no bigger than a suitcase with a maximum flight time of 30 minutes. It is held in the air by parachute.

The delta-winged Unicorn, meanwhile, has a wingspan of no more than six feet and is launched into the air by a bungee cord that acts as a slingshot. Each vehicle is battery-powered, and weighs only a couple of pounds.

A drone today typically costs $10,000 — $15,000, Gadler said, though he expects the price will drop over time. Gusty winds can be a problem for flights, though every system is different. Otherwise, they can fly over an entire 125-acre crop circle in about 15 minutes.

“We can collect images at individual frequencies that are valuable to the scientist or agronomist in detecting plant stresses,” Gadler said. “It’s looking to prove itself a very promising technology.”

The Federal Aviation Administration recently authorized the use of drones to fly over OSU’s potato fields, and Hamm believes the data could help farmers react quickly to make the most out of their crops.

“When it comes down to it, they are trying to make money,” he said. “Because of these (technologies) the definition of precision agriculture could dramatically change.”

The public is invited to watch a free demonstration of the aircraft Wednesday during OSU’s potato field day the Hermiston station, 2121 S. First St. The tour is free, and will begin at 8 a.m.

Contact George Plaven at or 541-564-4547.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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