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Growing UAS Precision Agriculture

A historic project involving precision ag experts, 1,000-pound UAVs flying at 8,000 feet and a group of farmers in the Red River Valley is making the role and promise of larger UAVs for commercial purposes clear.
By Patrick C. Miller | October 24, 2016

Sarah Lovas admits that she’s something of a science nerd, which explains why she volunteered to participate in a precision agriculture research project using an Elbit Systems of America medium-sized unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to survey crops.

“Precision agriculture is kind of my thing,” says Lovas, who farms with her husband Jason south of Hillsboro, North Dakota, in the Red River Valley—one of the world’s most fertile agricultural areas. Wheat, barley, corn, potatoes, soybeans, sunflowers and sugar beets are among crops grown from the rich black soil on a landscape often described as “flat as a pancake.”

This past summer, the fixed-winged, trademarked UAS built and operated by Elbit took flight on daily missions out of the Hillsboro Regional Airport to test the concept of using a drone flying at 8,000 feet to monitor crop health. The aircraft demonstrated its ability to survey 40,000 square acres of crops in an hour.

However, the project became much more than that. The Hermes also collected elevation data for mapping and participated in another project with Xcel Energy Inc. to conduct research on using UAS to inspect electric transmission lines for storm damage.

“Overall, it’s very exciting because we’re demonstrating the utility of a larger-sized UAS to do these kinds of missions—the ability to execute them and provide very accurate data,” says Raanan Horowitz, president and CEO of Elbit Systems of America, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems Ltd. based in Israel.

When Lovas was asked about participating in a UAS precision ag research project that included her alma mater—North Dakota State University—she was all in. She grew up on a farm in the region and attended NDSU where she received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural systems management and a master’s degree in soil science. She also runs Lovas Consulting, using her education and experience to advise farmers on their crops and on how to incorporate precision ag practices into their operations.

As part of her work on the project, Lovas compared the 8-centimeter, high-resolution UAS imagery shot by the Hermes to the 30-meter, low-resolution satellite (Landsat) imagery the U.S. Geological Survey provides to farmers for free. There was no comparison.

“Landsat is reflected bands of light—more like a blob—and not well-defined,” she notes. “The UAS image is a really detailed picture. You can actually see tracks and spots in the field.”

Using UAS imagery and software on her computer, Lovas stitched the images together and statistically separated bands of light to show areas of plant health variability within crops. This information can help farmers address problems caused by insect infestations, crop disease, weeds and poor drainage or lack of moisture.

Lovas observed that on a particular wheat field, there were only five satellite images available during the summer. Because of cloud cover, just two of them were useable. In contrast, the UAS could provide high-quality, detailed images every seven to 10 days.

Precision agriculture is already a reality for most U.S. farmers who use the technology to plant seed suited for certain soil conditions and apply specific prescriptions to solve certain types of problems with their crops. But Lovas believes that through more research and collaboration, UAS will eventually make agricultural production even more efficient and more precise.

“If we’re going to farm large fields with large equipment, we need to be able to address those levels on a micro level,” she says. “I do that all the time, but I think UAS could help me do it even better.”

From Israel To The Farm Fields
One of the challenges Horowitz, made to his project team was to explore how a larger, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that requires more people, more infrastructure and a larger logistic footprint could be more effective than quadcopters or other small UAS currently used in precision agriculture.

“It’s a good, interesting discussion on what you can do with a system like this with the level of sensors we have, both for the mapping and real-time video transmission,” he explains. “It’s not something you can do with a smaller UAS.”

The 20-foot-long Hermes weighs just under 1,000 pounds and has wingspan of 34 feet. The aircraft has accumulated more than 400,000 hours of flight time over a 15-year period. With 17 hours of endurance and a range of about 120 miles, it can carry two payloads that include an electro-optical and infrared sensor and the Vision Map A3 Edge digital mapping system.

The Hermes was allowed to fly thousands of feet above the prairie because North Dakota’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site—one of six designated by the Federal Aviation Administration—has an FAA certificate of authorization (COA) for the Hillsboro area that allows flights up to 10,000 feet. Restrictions on beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations required a chase plane from a local Civil Air Patrol wing to accompany the UAV on its flights.

“The unique thing about this is that it’s really the first time we’re doing something more commercial in nature,” Horowitz says, noting that most of Elbit’s work is in the defense field. “There’s the unique elements of the specific data you need for agriculture. It’s interesting dealing and working with people who represent more of a consumer-type effort rather than a governmental effort—farmers and people who use the data for what they do in their professions.”

One of those people is Lovas, who routinely works with local farmers as an agronomist to provide guidance on crop seed selection and advice on how, when and where to apply pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer to their crops.

“I am not a pilot and I have no desire to be a pilot or to fly a UAS,” she says. “But I’m really enthused about the data that can be produced from a UAS. As UAS technology and imaging move forward, you’re going to find that we have a need for people who actually fly and for people who actually work with the data.”

Lovas quickly got involved in sharing her knowledge of agriculture with Yuval Chaplin, director of major campaigns with Elbit Systems of America, and the company’s UAS operators.

“All of a sudden you’ve got pilots asking, ‘What’s a soybean aphid?’ she laughs. “We sat down and talked about what sensors they had on the aircraft. We had some really great conversations back and forth—a lot of theoretical things.”

When they told Lovas the Hermes was equipped with a 3D digital mapping system, she drew on her knowledge of the area. The flat terrain of the Red River Valley sometimes creates drainage problems in fields that can lead to drowned crops.

“I said, ‘When you’re up there, why don’t you turn on that sensor and see if we can do something with it?” she recalls. “Once they did that, it was pretty nice elevation data to work with. That was one of those things we talked about and they went out and did it, which was pretty cool.”

She explains that although farmers have access to free LiDAR elevation data for the area, much of it was produced years ago and is out-of-date. Over time, flooding and wind erosion can cause changes to the terrain.

“For large watershed planning and flood planning, that data still works,” Lovas says. “Having up-to-date elevation data is very useful for farmers. I can figure out where many depressions are in the field and help them understand how they can drain their fields more effectively.”

Flight Origins
The idea to bring the Israeli-made drone to the U.S. originated about two years ago when Terry Sando, senior manager of UAS sector development with the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Region Economic Development Corp., began discussing potential U.S. projects with Elbit. The company was looking to enter the U.S. commercial market with its medium-sized Hermes 450.

As Sando recalls, a 2013 study conducted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International steered Elbit toward precision ag. It concluded that while there were multiple uses for UAS, precision agriculture and public safety were the two most promising commercial and civil markets, comprising about 90 percent of the known potential markets.

Sando also knew that John Nowatzki, an agricultural machine specialist with NDSU’s Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department, was looking for a precision agriculture UAS research project using larger UAVs. After a year of discussions and a trade mission to Israel, Elbit brought the Hermes and its support equipment to the Hillsboro airport in the spring for a project funded by the company and the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

The flat terrain, large farm fields and the relatively uncluttered skies of a mostly rural area made the Red River Valley attractive for research on precision ag UAS operations, according to Chaplin.

“It’s a unique place for us in the emerging precision agriculture market,” he says. “There was a willingness to undertake the project and to balance the needs of stakeholders—farmers, universities, government agencies and anyone interested in agricultural technology. It’s a true center of excellence for UAS.”

Nowatzki says he was impressed with the quality of the imagery the Hermes collected from 8,000 feet up and surprised at the accuracy of the elevation data it gathered. “My prediction is that we’re going to see plenty of UAVs in agriculture,” he says.

One problem yet to be resolved, Nowatzki emphasizes, is the ability to transfer and analyze big data in a timely manner. For the information to be truly useful, he says it should be in the hands of farmers within 48 hours after it’s collected.

“We’re hoping to work on that with the rural telephone companies and cable companies to improve it for next year,” Nowatzki says.

Those involved in the project believe the research will resume next year with more Hermes flights over the Red River Valley. Even though much was accomplished, Lovas says it will take years of research and collaboration to effectively mesh UAS technology with precision agriculture. There are also issues to be worked out such as privacy and data security. Nonetheless, she is optimistic about the future.

“We’re at a point where the UAS industry and the agricultural industry are learning a lot about each other,” she explains. “We’re learning how to use this data. How do we incorporate it right now into what we’re doing? Eventually into the future, I think it holds the power to completely change the way we’re doing everything.”

Flight Lessons
Little did Lovas know when she first volunteered for the project, it would lead to her giving a presentation at the end of the summer in front of a U.S. senator, two congressmen, the CEO of Elbit Systems of America, various North Dakota state officials, the news media and dozens of others who turned up Aug. 22 for a field day at the Hillsboro Regional Airport.

During her talk, Lovas explained that before having UAS imagery at her fingertips, much of her time was spent driving around fields on an all-terrain vehicle looking for problems. Now she has high-resolution images that can be imported into Google Earth. Using a GPS-equipped iPad, she can drive directly to a suspected problem area rather than spending hours guessing at where it might be.

“I’ve heard people say that this data is going to replace agronomists on four-wheelers,” Lovas says. “Well, maybe one day it will. That day isn’t today, but it’s really neat to think about how a really good picture can be used to help me understand a problem and improve what I’m doing.

“It’s really exciting to sit and think and dream about it,” she continues. “I think it’s very realistic that in my lifetime, these things could very well come together.”

When Lovas finished her talk on how UAS technology had positively impacted her farming operation and her work as an agronomist, a local farmer told her that she’d done more to promote UAS as an important tool for precision agriculture than anyone else who spoke during the event.

Ultimately, she believes UAS technology will help American farmers feed a growing world population.

“As farmers, we are constantly trying to do our best, both from an environmental standpoint as well as an economic standpoint,” Lovas says. “We produce the safest, most economical, environmentally friendly food in the world. That’s what the U.S. farmer does, and it’s technology like this that helps us accomplish that.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, UAS Magazine
pmiller@bbiinternational.com
701-738-4923

 

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SIDEBAR

UAS Helps Restore Power To The People After A Disaster
Following a natural disaster, one statistic frequently cited is how many people are without power. Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy Inc. is working in partnership with Elbit Systems of America to test the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technology to assess damage and restore electricity and natural gas service to its customers as quickly as possible after a storm.

“We know today—more than ever—people cannot be without power,” says Laura McCarten, Xcel regional vice president. “We feel we do a very good job of it, but we’re constantly striving to do better. We see that this technology is going to help us take that next step forward.”

During the summer, Elbit’s 450 Hermes medium-sized UAS flew out of the Hillsboro (North Dakota) Regional Airport to gather baseline data from an altitude of 7,000 feet on Xcel’s electrical system in the small town of Mayville, North Dakota—about 14 miles away. The drone then flew another mission at 5,000 feet to test its ability to detect simulated damage to the town’s power grid. The Hermes showed that it could detect downed power poles in daylight and at night.

“Xcel is constantly looking to improve the reliability of service to its customers and we think this technology will be one of those things,” McCarten says. “We’re very excited to see what this new research will bring for us.”

The University of North Dakota, General Electric, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and Waypoint Global Strategies are partners in the project.