Monday, October 2, 2023

Research and application uses of drones in agriculture

By Elizabeth Poisson Poultry Times staff

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GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The Georgia House of Representatives established Resolution 744 which formed a committee that studied the use of aerial vehicles, or drones. The committee examined remote airplane-like devices or camera drones utilized by police departments, or government agencies. The public has expressed fears about these agencies using them because they threaten the privacy of citizens.

However, the purpose of drones in agriculture is much different than the uses of law enforcement or other similar agencies.

Agriculture uses

Information released by said, the collection of data analysis and management of agriculture is done so easily with drones because they utilize high resolution photographs. The drones can be used for monitoring field and crop health, finding irrigation complications and reducing pest infiltration.

They can also be applied to nursery inspection, and livestock observation. The Federal Aviation Administration created a rule called Rule 107. This gives the provisions that farmers must follow when using drones.

However, there is a restriction that is stopping the drone market from increasing in agriculture and it is the air traffic protocols. Farmers must follow air traffic regulations to avoid any accidents in the air.


Last year, California saw the largest wildfires ever recorded.

According to the USDA, the fires burned more than 8.8 acres of land. The winds are the most unpredictable part of wildfires because they can change the course of the wildfire on a dime. The handling of drones during wildfires aids firefighters to stay safe from the flames and better use their resources.

The director of Georgia State University’s Systems Integrated Modeling and Simulation lab Xiaolin Hu started a project that creates drones to collect real-time data about wildfires such as wind data and fire front data. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is the primary financial contributor for the project.

“Fires generate heat that can have a major impact on local wind/weather conditions,” Hu said. “The constant interaction between fire and atmosphere causes dynamic and local changes in wind speed and direction that are not predicted well by standard weather models or expert judgement.”

“The real time data collected by drones can help firefighters by providing fire location and fire spread information — and issue an ‘early warning’ to firefighters if they are in danger,” he added.

Hu and two other researchers, Haiyang Chao, director of the University of Kansas’ Cooperative Unmanned Systems lab, and Ming Xin, who teaches mechanical aerospace engineering at the University of Missouri are in the evaluation phase of their KHawk drone.

The newer drones that they are developing will have the ability for autonomous sensing, navigation, autopilot, thermal camera and control. During the past few years, flight tests were performed over controlled fires across fields ranging from 20-300 acres to gather data on fire spread and fire produced wind.

They also will be working with the Kansas/Missouri Forest service to fly over wildfires. The drones will fly independently, give real-time wind/fire data and give information regarding fire spread. This opportunity will be monitored by human pilots and control station operators on the ground.

Hu stated, “the ultimate goal is to support the decision-making fire managers and improve safety for firefighters on the ground. An important aspect of this project is to develop collaboration where fire managers and firefighters work together with drones in collaborative tasks.”

Research and documentation describes a scientist at the University of Georgia, Clint Waltz, who uses drones for taking photos of the research fields in Griffin, Ga., for documentation. It’s less time consuming to use an aerial device rather than walking in the field.

“photo documentation is essential to our research, and the drone can take aerial photos of the effects of different fertilizer and pesticide treatments on various grasses,” Waltz said.

He added that, “it can go up 50 or 60 feet and take a photo, which helps us measure treatment effects.”

The drone that is operated for studying the fields of the UGA Agricultural and Environmental Sciences campus only weighs five pounds. Waltz’s technical research technician Clay Bennett describes it as “very small, like two-by-two feet, but it can fly 700 feet away from you. You have to keep it in line of sight at all times.”

According to Waltz, a drone could fly over a field of crops in less than an hour, take a picture and the farmer would know where to apply pesticides.

“This is precision agriculture. The technology already exists in precision ag to use infrared cameras to take photos over fields,” he said. “These images indicate stressed areas. It takes a photo of hot and cold spots in the field and certain areas show up red, orange, blue or green. It’s not very pretty picture, but it’s very helpful to farmers. An image from our drone is a very high-quality image.”

Infrared photos are the best to find dry spots within a field. For example, a drone can be used on golf courses to detect areas of course that need water.

“A golf course superintendent comes to work, sends out the drone to take photos of all the greens, identifies the dry spots and sends his staff out to apply irrigation just in those photos,” Waltz said, adding that, “In the afternoon, he could send it out to take photos of all 18 greens and see the effect of the irrigation. This would also save a lot of labor for his staff.”

They can also utilize drones to check out the conditions of their golf courses whether it’s a frost or dew.

“Maybe there’s a frost, and you need to delay opening until 10 a.m., you could report that over social media,” he said.

Unfortunately, a person cannot find weeds with drone images, however, it could help identify diseased areas.

“Picking up weed presence is difficult because you’re looking at green on green, Waltz said. “Disease issues, on the other hand, would be brown and could be identified early.”

“A grower wouldn’t have to apply blanket sprays,” he added. “He could identify the problem area, mark it and spray just that area with a low label rate. The amount of pesticide applied would be reduced, and thus, the cost goes down.”

Sod growers can use drones too. They can be used to find “off-variety grass” in pastures. Waltz said, “the grower could then pull-out grasses that are contaminants or are not the same variety that he’s growing.

A drone could fly over a 500-acre sod farm in a hour or two and bring back a photo the grower could use to pinpoint and pull out the impurities; fifteen minutes is all it takes for Bennett to fly over UGA turfgrass pastures once a week to take the photographs.

In the first year, the first drone that was purchased by UGA only cost $300. Since then, they have upgraded to a drone that costs $1,200.

“The first one had some issues. The one we have now cost $1,200 and we’ve just had to replace one blade,” Waltz said. “The $300 was basically a toy, and the $1,200 model is much more precise. Now I can turn the camera different angles and even take video. The first one wouldn’t hold still and take good images. The stability of second one has made all the difference.”

The photographs can be directly downloaded to a smart phone.

As this technology continues to advance, so will its research and usage in the agricultural fields.

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