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Ag Market Ready for Unmanned Aerial Systems

Precision ag does not have to wait for FAA rules; farmers can fly UAS on their own land now.

Published on: Jul 5, 2013

If you've been watching the development of Unmanned Aerial Systems and wondering when you could put this new technology to work in your precision ag operation, the answer is "right now."

Kansas State University's Applied Aviation Research Center at the Salina campus held a demonstration day on July 2 to show off the progress that has been made in getting systems ready for farmers to use and emphasized that precision ag does not have to wait until 2015 when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is expected to complete writing the rules for integrating UAS into U.S. airspace.

"If a farmer wants to buy one of these aircraft and use it on his own farm, he can do it right now," said Mike Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "The same rules apply to his flying it that would apply to a hobbyist flying model airplanes – they can't be flown higher than 400 feet above the ground and the operator must keep them in sight."

AIRBORNE WING: The AgEagle prototype in flight.
AIRBORNE WING: The AgEagle prototype in flight.

K-State demonstrated both a "flying wing" aircraft and a rotor-propelled craft made by Aeryon and called the "Scout." They also brought a couple of larger fixed-wing aircraft to talk about but did not fly them.

Mark Blanks, UAS program manager for K-State Salina said UAS has applications across the spectrum of agriculture from crop health assessments to weed and insect identification, spectral analysis and phenotyping , monitoring irrigation systems, livestock health, algae blooms in lakes and  assessing grazing impacts.

It also has potential in mapping wildlife populations, monitoring the health and habitat of endangered species and keeping track of the movement of herds of animals or flocks of migratory birds.

CORNFIELD MAP: This map of a cornfield was produced from the images collected by the AgEagle. The green areas are healthy plants, the pink and purple indicate less healthy plants and the black areas are bare ground.
CORNFIELD MAP: This map of a cornfield was produced from the images collected by the AgEagle. The green areas are healthy plants, the pink and purple indicate less healthy plants and the black areas are bare ground.

"And all of that is without even getting into the realm of larger aircraft or talking about the issues of operating in areas with higher development or population. All of this is just looking at potential in remote, unpopulated areas where the assurance of safety is easy to accomplish," Toscano said.

Kansas State welcomed Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Manhattan, who has been a champion of agricultural aviation research to the demonstration field day.

IN FLIGHT: Kansas State University demonstrated the capabilities of the Aeryon Scout, a rotor UAS on the upper end of the scale (close-up-inset). The 3 to 4 pound aircraft has a useful load of about 400 grams (the weight of a digital point-and-shoot camera) and a flying time of about 20 minutes per battery.
IN FLIGHT: Kansas State University demonstrated the capabilities of the Aeryon Scout, a rotor UAS on the upper end of the scale (close-up-inset). The 3 to 4 pound aircraft has a useful load of about 400 grams (the weight of a digital point-and-shoot camera) and a flying time of about 20 minutes per battery.

"As a Senator, my last earmark – um, make that designated funding request -- was $3.5 million to support the development of the Applied Aviation Research Center here at Salina," Moran said. "I think I can be proud to have that on the record."

K-State Salina was one of the first two universities in the U.S. to offer a bachelor's degree in UAS and is one of only a handful of universities authorized to fly UAS in the National Airspace System.

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Moran said that there are significant issues still to be resolved as the UAS industry takes off, including the sticky one of preserving privacy, but he sees far more potential benefit than downside. The economic benefits of job creation, economic growth and increased agricultural productivity are huge benefits, he said.

A system ready to fly

The day also featured the introduction of Bret Chilcott, founder of AgEagle at Neodesha, who has been working on UAS development with K-State and has an unmanned system going into production this month.

"I grew up on a farm and all my spare money went to flying lessons or model airplanes," he said. "I love flying model airplanes and I am also a private pilot. So, when I learned K-State was looking for help on this, I volunteered to work with them."

AgEagle is in the process of launching commercial production of its first product – a "flying wing" similar to the one demonstrated by K-State on Tuesday.

"The city of Neodesha helped me find a building suitable for manufacturing and I'm ready to go with production," he said. "And I am lucky that there are skilled workers in the Neodesha area looking for good jobs. Cobalt Boats is located here and they have reduced workforce over the last five years and many of those people are looking for work." He plans to initially employ about 25 workers, he said.

Chilcott says he has orders for eight systems and expects to make and sell about 150 before the end of this year. Planned production for 2014 is 1,200 units, he says, but he has the resources to rapidly ramp up production to meet demand.

The initial AgEagle system includes the fixed wing aircraft, which is battery operated and made of carbon fiber and foam, a launcher and a programmable auto-pilot system. It comes equipped with a camera modified to record near infrared images suitable for vegetative index analysis. The system includes software to make the images more understandable to the average user.

The software will "stitch" the photos and convert them into easy to understand color codes. Chilcott said he has been working with an Iowa-based software developer, AgPixel, to create a geo-coded map that can be loaded to and read by a variable rate applicator. That will be added to the package when it is ready, he said.

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The autopilot system can be programmed to fly a pre-determined grid and then return home. The aircraft also has built in safety feature that tells it to return home if it doesn't have enough battery charge to complete its mission. If it goes down anywhere but "home," it automatically emits GPS coordinates of its location and it has an electronic location transmitter than sends a signal that can be tracked on a tablet or smart phone.

The entire package retails for under $7,000.

The prototype aircraft has been extensively tested, Chilcott said. It has flown hundreds of hours and mapped thousands of acres of cropland and has been deliberately crashed into corn stubble, trees and barbed wire fences to ensure its durability in ordinary farm operations.

"I throw it in the back of the pickup truck and take off down a dusty road," Chilcott said. "I want to be sure that it will hold up in normal, everyday farm use. My goal is to make this something that works for farmers."

Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly named Mike Toscano as Mike Tuscano. Farm Progress regrets the error.