It's a Plane!

Using Unmanned Aircraft to Moniter Fields

Published in the September 2013 Issue Published online: Sep 02, 2013 Tyler J. Baum
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"All Systems Go? Luke Borst communicates back and forth with chief pilot Randy Franzen, in the central command station, on the status of the Tetracam HawkEye.
"Ready for Take-off. Randy Franzen and Luke Borst open up the Tetracam HawkEye chutes before giving it a gentle boost into the air.
"Weather Tarps. Prior to every flight, Franzen and Borst lay out five different-colored tarps in the same order. Along with a nearby weather station on a tripod, the tarps help calibrate the camera in order to recognize the right plants in different lighting conditions.
"Flying High. The Tetracam HawkEye soars above a 30-acre plot at the OSU Hermiston experiment station. By law (at least until 2015), UAVs are not allowed to fly higher than 400 feet in the air.
"Central Command. After the HawkEye's nearly 15-minute flight, Randy Franzen begins downloading all 267 photos-all in RAW format-which will take a full hour to complete. The photos take up 1.56 gigabytes of space.
"Weather Stats. Weather conditions on an early July morning were near-perfect for flight. The Tetracam HawkEye needs just enough of a breeze to inflate the chutes so it can fly, but not so much wind to ground it.

On a sunny July morning at Oregon State University's Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Hermiston, Ore., Randy Franzen and his assistant, Luke Borst, prepare an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for flight.

Even though it's only about 7 a.m. Pacific Daylight Saving Time, temperatures are quickly rising. For now, the weather is pleasant. There's little-to-no breeze for the moment, even though the forecast calls for winds of about 15 mph later in the day.

As chief pilot for Paradigm-a company that manages and implements unmanned vehicle data collection systems, based out of Bend, Ore.-Franzen needs just enough of a headwind to get the chutes on the Tetracam HawkEye UAV inflated so it will fly, but not so much wind as to ground it.

While preparations are made for flight, OSU Professor Emeritus and Hermiston Extension Director Philip B. Hamm stands by and observes, in awe of the technological advances of which OSU can take advantage-technology that can potentially help growers more efficiently use water, fertilizers and pesticides to bolster yields and cut costs.

While heavily used in the military-and more widely known as "drones"-UAVs are becoming a thing of the future, not just for the military but for agriculture as well.

 

Saving Resources

At Hermiston, researchers are doing all they can to find ways to help growers save resources. One way is through their variable rate pivot donated by Lindsay Irrigation, which can apply what is needed over the places that need it-whether it's water, fertilizer, fungicides or herbicides-rather than on all 125 acres of their various-sized plots. The question is: How do they know where to apply what?

That's where UAVs come into play.

Once the HawkEye is airborne, it takes thousands of photographs over a small plot, using a camera on the aircraft capable of detecting different wavelengths of light, including infrared. Unhealthy plants reflect less infrared, making sickly plants appear lighter red than healthy plants. The camera, depending on the altitude the UAV is flying, can even focus on a single leaf in order to detect plant problems. Through n-Link, the information technology parent-company of Paradigm, algorithms sort through the thousands of pictures to identify certain issues, such as Colorado Potato Beetles.

As Hamm points out, growers currently treat CPB over an entire field if an infestation has reached the threshold to make it economically reasonable to do so. Through resources provided by UAVs and n-Link, along with using a variable rate pivot to fumigate, growers could identify what to treat-in this case CPB-and where specifically to treat it.

"Next time across, with your variable rate pivot, when [you reach] the spot where the beetles are, you turn on the insecticides to the pivot, and you've treated that spot," Hamm says. "You don't worry about the old IPM threshold because you've now used one-thousandth of the amount of insecticide you would have had when you did the whole field. You stopped the problem early before any damage occurred."

What OSU is doing is "vetting" this process to make it a feasible option for large growers to use in the future.

Thinking like a grower, Hamm says, "I want to know if I have a problem. If I have no problem, that's fine. But if I have a problem in any place, I want to know what it is and where it is."

Researchers at Hermiston purposely reduce irrigation and fertilizer on some plants in order to see how quickly, if at all, the equipment detects the stressed plants. If it works, scientists hope the project will continue in subsequent years so they can test the cameras to also find plants that are plagued by insects and diseases.

Potatoes were chosen as the focus of the research because they're a high-valued crop, expensive to grow and must be carefully managed to reduce internal and external blemishes and irregular growth spurts, says Don Horneck, an agronomist with the OSU Extension Service, and one of the researchers currently involved with this effort.

 

Not a Toy

As Frazer continually monitors the plane orbiting above a 30-acre plot, he keeps in constant contact with Borst, who's on the other end of the walkie-talkie. Even though the plane is on auto-pilot, Frazer continuously gives minor updates to the flight plan for Borst to program in-directing the plane to increase in altitude or move more in one direction. On the other end of the walkie-talkie, Borst, who is working out of their central command station housed in a covered trailer, programs in the changes and constantly updates Frazer on "air time"-how long the plane has been in flight. The HawkEye's battery life is only 15 minutes, and so Frazer and Borst both must make sure they land the plane before it runs out of juice.

It becomes quite clear to an observer that it takes a lot more than a grower strapping a camera onto a radio-controlled airplane. UAVs-which are different than radio-controlled airplanes-are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. As such, a person must be an FAA-certified pilot to operate one, and must file a certificate of authorization (COA) with the FAA before flying it. Furthermore, the UAVs currently being flown by OSU are not allowed to fly higher than 400 feet and must stay within sight of the operator, typically less than a mile away. In OSU's case, UAVs are programmed to automatically shut off if they fly outside the set boundaries.

While the UAVs themselves may not be considered expensive to large-operation growers, processing the data is the biggest part of logistical demands.

In its 15 minutes of air time, the HawkEye takes about 267 pictures-in RAW format-which is about 1.56 gigabytes of data. That much data take a full hour to download. Over the course of the year, it becomes terabytes of space.

OSU is leasing the HawkEye from Boeing Research & Technology. On top of that, they're leasing a delta-winged, plastic foam aircraft made by Procerus Technologies, called the Unicorn. Franzen says that, in flight, the Unicorn is very precise and resembles a hawk.

The HawkEye is about the size of a suitcase and weighs eight pounds. It flies in a circular, orbital pattern. The Unicorn, which is much faster and has a much longer battery life than that of the HawkEye, is used to fly over three adjacent pivots near Boardman, Ore., in a back-and-forth grid motion. It has a wingspan of about six feet and weighs less than six pounds. Both planes were flown three times a week throughout the summer.

The project was started in no small part by an adjunct OSU faculty member who works at Paradigm, Josh Brungardt. A former fighter pilot, he helped initiate a non-agriculture-related UAV program at Kansas State University.

Ray Hunt, a plant physiologist with the USDA in Beltsville, Md., collaborates with Horneck, an agronomist, on the data analysis.

As Franzen says, the project is a lot more than just flying an unmanned aircraft.

"It's not about the aircraft at all. Everybody says, `drones,' but it's not about the drone," he says. "That's just a small part of it." 

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