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NDSU testing large unmanned aircraft for agricultural uses

A large unmanned aircraft that will help NDSU with an agricultural research project has taken its first flight.

Small unmanned aircraft systems, known as UAS, most weighing 55 pounds or less, have proved to be useful in crop and livestock production. A group of North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station scientists and NDSU Extension Service specialists think large UAS can play an important role in agriculture as well.

Those scientists and specialists are collaborating with the Hillsboro Airport Authority, some Traill and Steele County producers and Fort Worth, Texas-based Elbit Systems of America on a research project to test that theory.

Elbit is a subsidiary of Elbit Systems Ltd., an Israeli high-tech company that provided a Hermes 450, a UAS with a 35-foot wingspan, for the project. That's similar to the wingspan of a single-engine manned aircraft.

The Hermes 450, which was flown in sections to the U.S. from Israel, then trucked to North Dakota, was assembled this week. It is flying out of the Hillsboro Municipal Airport, where it will be based for the duration of the project. The Hermes 450's ground control equipment was installed earlier this month.

"Small UAS are ideal for scouting crops and livestock, and can be used effectively to capture imagery for precision management decisions such as variable-rate in-season fertilization, weed identification, livestock inventory and identifying sick animals," said John Nowatzki, Extension agricultural machine systems specialist and the principal investigator on this project.

"But small UAS are relatively limited by flight time and cannot easily capture imagery of thousands of acres on the same day," he added. "Large UAS will be needed to collect high-spatial and temporal-resolution imagery over entire regions in a timely manner."

One of the benefits of using UAS for agricultural purposes is saving time, but if a producer has to drive a small UAS from field to field, then it really isn't much of a time saver, noted Sreekala Bajwa, chair of NDSU's Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and a co-investigator on the project.

"Most small UAS need to capture hundreds of individual images to make a single mosaicked image of one square mile," Nowatzki said. "A large UAS could capture high-resolution imagery of one square mile in a single image. This would make it possible to capture imagery useable for precision crop management over hundreds of thousands of acres in a single day at very high resolution."

The project will use the Hermes 450 and small rotocopter and fixed-wing UAS to collect imagery from a four by 40-mile corridor in east-central North Dakota every two weeks during the 2016 crop-growing season. The Hermes 450 will gather images from altitudes of 3,000, 5,000 and 8,000 feet, while the small UAS will fly at 400 feet or below.

The UAS will collect data on stand counts in corn, sunflowers and sugar beets; the effectiveness of nitrogen applied to corn and wheat; iron chlorosis efficiency in soybeans; and yield predictions for corn, soybeans, wheat, sugar beets and sunflowers. The researchers plan to test whether UAS also can benefit livestock producers, such as by inventorying cattle in pastures.

The intent is to compare the data collected from the air at various altitudes with data collected through satellite imagery, in-field observations and on-the- ground sensors, detailed soil analyses and harvest yield information.

"This research is the first of its kind in the nation," Bajwa said.

Researchers also plan to assess the costs associated with collecting UAS imagery, including personnel, transportation, the number of flights required to gather sufficient data, the time required to collect the information, area of coverage per flight and maintenance costs per hour of flight to determine whether using UAS for agricultural purposes is economical.

Persons involved in the project say this kind of information also will help companies such as Elbit decide whether to consider expanding to North Dakota. A Research ND grant from the North Dakota Department of Commerce is partly funding this project. The purpose of these grants is to promote long-term economic development in the state, Nowatzki noted.

To inform producers and others in the test area about the project, Extension agents Alyssa Scheve from Traill County and Angie Johnson from Steele County organized informational meetings in both counties. They sent letters to landowners and ran ads in local newspapers to make sure everyone was aware of the meetings. Topics discussed at the public meetings included data privacy, manned and unmanned aircraft safety, project research objectives and image collection flight schedules.

Trajectory information from the UAS flights will be shared with the Federal Aviation Administration, which is developing regulatory standards for the use of UAS.

The FAA recently approved the Hermes 450's flight as part of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in North Dakota. The state was selected in 2013 as one of six FAA test sites and is conducting research that will assist the FAA in developing those standards.

Because the FAA requires UAS to be flown within the operator's line of sight and the Hermes 450 will go beyond that, the North Dakota wing of the Civil Air Patrol will fly a chase plane with a visual observer who will be in constant radio communication with the ground-based UAS operators, Nowatzki said.

The project is the latest in NDSU's efforts to determine the role of UAS in agricultural production and help strengthen the state's economy. Those efforts began in 2014 with a project to use thermal infrared sensors and cameras mounted on UAS to gather data from crop and livestock research projects at NDSU's Carrington Research Extension Center.

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