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These Drones Spy On Spuds

For years, unmanned drones have played a prominent and sometimes controversial role in fighting overseas.  But outside of news accounts, many Americans still haven’t actually seen a drone. 

That’s starting to change, now that Congress has set a 2015 deadline for integrating Unmanned Aerial Systems into the national airspace.  On a small scale, drones are already here. 

David Nogueras tells us about how researchers are using drones to study potatoes in Eastern Oregon.

This is one of two remotely-piloted vehicles researchers will be using here at the Oregon State University’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center. 

It’s called the HawkEye.   It weighs just eight pounds and is roughly the size of small duffle bag.   It has a propeller, but no wings.  It’s kept in the air with a brightly colored parasail. 

OSU is leasing both vehicles from Boeing Research & Technology.

So why are they studying potatoes here?

Don Horneck, an agronomist at the research station, says, “We have some of the highest yielding potatoes of anywhere in the world here in the Columbia Basin.”

He says Oregon farmers sold more than $170 million worth of potatoes last year.  But it’s a plant that’s both expensive to grow and susceptible to problems associated with insects or disease.

In these experiments, Horneck will deliberately stress the plants by cutting back the amount of water and fertilizer they get in different sections of the field.

“We will fly the UAV over the top and see whether it can see it before we can see it.”

Once in the air, these aircraft are programmed to automatically fly a grid pattern over the fields.  They’re prohibited from leaving that area, and takeoffs and landings need be conducted by a licensed pilot on the ground. 

Both are requirements tied to the Federal Aviation Administration’s special approval of the project.

Strapped inside of the aircrafts’ frames, small but powerful digital cameras capture images of the crops below.  Part of the research will study how different wavelengths of light might be used to expose problems out in the field — problems that wouldn’t show up in a conventional photograph. 

They’ll look at infrared imagery, for example. Researchers already know that infrared imagery offers useful information.

“Heat stress is obviously a very good indicator of water stress.  Plants are usually hotter It’s not respiring as well.  It’s also an indicator of disease and things of that nature,” Horneck explains.

Farmers already scout their fields with traditional airplanes. But Horneck says because the UAVs are able to fly at lower altitudes than the farmer’s planes these cameras should be able to captures images with much higher resolution.

So why’s that useful?  Well, some of these fields are massive — many of them a hundred-plus acres.  If a farmer wants to know what’s going on out there, the best he or she can do is sample around the edges.  So the more information growers have, the more efficient they can be with things like water, fertilizer and pesticides.

Phil Hamm, Director of the Hermiston research center, explains, “Growers are capitalists.  Although they really like what they do.  They enjoy farming.  They enjoy being on the tractor.  They enjoy watching things grow.  But when the year’s over with, they’re trying to make money.”

He thinks the use of remotely-piloted aircraft has the potential to revolutionize what’s known as precision agriculture.  In simple terms, precision ag is all about putting things like water and fertilizer in the right place, at the right time and in the right quantity.

But if these small remotely operated planes really are going to bring about a revolution — researchers need to find a way to make them work with some of the larger equipment out in the field.

This sprinkler is hundreds of feet long and stretches across the field like a giant metal centipede.  One end the sprinkler is anchored in place. The other end slowly swings around like the big hand of a clock. 

Hamm says what make this system different is that an operator can program each of the nozzles that run along its length to either open or close when it reaches a certain point in the field.  That’s important because Hamm says if UAVs were ever able to detect - say the beginnings of an insect infestation — farmers might not have to spray an entire field with insecticide.  The two systems could work together.

“What you could do is program into the system that area which has already been referenced by GPS by the UAV to know exactly where those insects are in the field and when that sprinkler comes across it could automatically put on an insecticide in just that very small area.”

Oregon State’s interest in unmanned systems goes beyond just looking at potatoes.  The FAA is expected to designate six official drone-testing areas in the U.S.

OSU is part of a consortium that hopes to secure one of those areas.  Hamm says in the meantime other faculty members are already talking about how the technology can be applied to other fields of research for things like water quality, forest management or invasive species.

“We had a list a mile long when the faculty met, but you can’t do it all.  You certainly can’t do it all in one year.  And it makes a lot of sense to do it stepwise.  ‘Well, this worked so let’s try that.  Well, that worked so let’s try that.’  So it’s a stepwise process.”

So too will be the process of integrating UAVs into American airspace.  Oregon is one of number of states around the country where lawmakers are considering legislation to address privacy concerns raised by the technology.  One of the the next steps for the the FAA will be the selection of those six test areas.  That should happen by the end of the year.