UAVs’ Potential to Capture In-depth Ag Data

Drone ARS Morris web

The modern unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) first entered into military service in Israel and was not adopted by the U.S. military for more than a decade. Since then, the United States has become the world leader in UAV development and use as a military platform, but only recently have small civilian versions begun flying as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and manufacturers work on rules and safety regulations.

In Japan, however, small UAVs have been in use for several years – not surveilling enemy forces, but helping Japanese farmers with their crops, where roughly half the country’s cultivated land has UAV coverage. But only now are agricultural UAVs beginning to see use in the United States, although primarily still in a test mode.

“It’s a promising technology, although I don’t see it showing up in USDA surveys as being regularly used right now,” noted David Schimmelpfennig, a senior agricultural economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). “UAVs possibly could take over some monitoring and evaluation that are done on the ground right now, and people are excited about the potential for them. But we haven’t yet seen real must-have applications for crop production involving UAVs.”

As with many new technologies that were slow to be adopted in agriculture but now are considered commonplace, it is that promise – that farmers potentially may benefit from information on their fields gathered by UAV sensors and cameras – that is beginning to capture the attention of USDA, agricultural academia, UAV manufacturers, and farmers themselves. At this stage, the questions outweigh the answers, beginning with whether UAV services are for everyone and will they be privately owned and operated, parked alongside the farm’s tractors, or become a service, similar to crop dusters.

USDA Research Quadcopter Over Minnesota Field web

A Lockheed Martin Indago™ AG quadcopter equipped with multiple sensors flies over a USDA experimental test field in Morris, Minnesota.

USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has been working on those and other agricultural UAV issues for at least a decade, including at the Soils Management Research (SMR) unit in Morris, Minnesota, and the Jornada Experimental Range (JER) in Las Cruces, New Mexico. And USDA researchers say the pace of their work is accelerating.

“Our research took a positive turn in the last two years by using more instrumentation on UAVs when they became available to optimize the use of our resources, train our workforce/support staff, and capture as much as possible of, not data, but characteristics of the soils and plants that then can be turned into data and, at the end of the day, into information and knowledge,” SMR research lead Abdullah Jaradat said. “We need more instantaneous answers to new questions, especially with precision agriculture, when it comes to the use of chemicals or monitoring droughts, temperatures, etc.

“This cannot be done easily at an experimental or farm-field scale without UAVs, monitoring crops at different stages of growth and development. The largest part of the work we’ve been doing has been to select new crops or varieties for development trades, land cover, maturity differences – measuring everything using UAVs, then verifying with handheld instruments so we know the UAVs are capturing, with certainty, the information coming from the plants.”

Predictions for the potential size of the UAV agricultural market vary from an October 2016 report by Grand View Research of $3.77 billion by 2024 to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report in May 2016 titled “Clarity From Above” predicting ag sales will be nearly 10 times that level by 2050, when a higher income global population of up to 9 billion will require a greater than 50 percent increase in food production.

“Drones will allow farming to become a highly data-driven industry, which eventually will lead to an increase in productivity and yields. Due to their ease of use and low cost, drones can be used for producing time series animations showing the precise development of a crop. Such analysis could reveal production inefficiencies and lead to better crop management,” according to PwC.

“With those possibilities in mind, it can be assumed this technology will transform agriculture into a high-tech industry for the first time, with decisions being based on real gathering and processing of data. Thus, agriculture’s prime concern is not the drone’s speed or flexibility, but the type and quality of data it can obtain. So the industry will primarily push for more sophisticated sensors and cameras. Another objective will be to obtain drones that will require a minimal level of training and be highly automated,” the PwC report stated.

While late to market, North America is expected to be the future’s key revenue-generating region, with a prevalent share of the industry due to the increasing adoption of drones for spraying, seeding, and livestock farming.

“It can be assumed this technology will transform agriculture into a high-tech industry for the first time, with decisions being based on real gathering and processing of data. Thus, agriculture’s prime concern is not the drone’s speed or flexibility, but the type and quality of data it can obtain.”

“The increasing technological advancements in equipment and for enhancing the quality of the farming techniques have led to the increased implementation of agriculture drones in the market,” according to a Grand View Research press release about its study. “Increasing automation in the agriculture process, owing to the labor crisis, such as lack of skilled farmers [and] aging farmers, is also expected to positively impact market growth. A favorable shift in regulatory policy is also expected to allow start-ups to operate in small and large farming operations and aid in disease and water management.

“Innovations in the GPS mapping field, coupled with advancements in precision agriculture, are expected to propel industry growth over the forecast period. Drones have the potential to implement better plantation with crop rotation strategies and give crucial inputs related to the daily progress of crops, which is further contributing to the growth. The scarcity of trained pilots for operating drones may impact market growth, although the market is expecting to overcome the scarcity, gradually, with increasing applications of the drone.”

In the United States, larger farms have been adopting other information technologies in precision agriculture at twice the rate of smaller farms and UAV use is expected to follow a similar path.

ARS Drone Morris NDVI web

An RGB image taken by the Indago UAV (pictured above) using the Sentera Quad camera, looking for indicators of nutrient- or climate-stressed plants that are not visible to the naked eye, shows a difference (left of the red line compared to the right of the line) in population density, and therefore variability, in plant cover at USDA’s Swan Lake Research Farm, Morris, Minnesota.

Quadcopters have been the most commonly used to date, but are fairly small and slow moving, carrying relatively unsophisticated sensors that also are slow. On a large farm, it takes several such UAVs a long time to cover areas of interest and acquire a complete set of data. UAV popularity is expected to increase significantly as they become faster and equipped with better sensors.

“Certain types of farms in some parts of the country already are using UAVs quite a bit, such as fairly large [unmanned] helicopters that can carry a large load of insecticide to spray crops. But there’s a big difference between a platform that can carry a couple of hundred gallons of product and most of the UAVs available now,” Schimmelpfennig said.

“The latest and greatest things often come from ag retailers and service providers, who have economies of scale far greater than an independent farmer. And private farmers are using consultants and service providers today in their fields a lot more than they did 10 years ago, whether they are doing precision agriculture or not,” he said.

That need for increased speed and better payload capability already is being demonstrated at the Minnesota research center.

“Right now, we are using technology developed by engineers who once worked for NASA and now have a new company [Sentera, LLC] in Minneapolis. The machine we have [Indago] has four prop motors and they provided us with easy-to-use software to map the field, fed it into the computer, and that connects to the UAV, which then flies over the correct route and returns,” Jaradat said.

“But the technology has developed very quickly since we began two years ago. I recently met a developer from a company in Iowa that has a single-engine, fixed-wing UAV that is much lighter than I ever imagined. It can cover larger areas in less time with a heavier load of sensors and cameras, enabling the capture of more and more information generated by the crops themselves, as well as livestock and habitats,” Jaradat said.

A similar evolution has been underway at USDA’s 278-square-mile JER, where ARS has been conducting ongoing research into rangeland mapping and monitoring for more than a decade, developing a workflow for acquisition, processing, and analysis of UAV imagery and relating remotely sensed information to ground-based measurements.

The range began using two MLB BAT 3 UAVs, fully autonomous GPS-guided aircraft with 6-foot wingspans, in 2006. In 2013, it upgraded to the larger BAT 4, with a 13-foot wingspan, greater range and endurance, and a heavier payload capacity.

At the speed with which modern technology is evolving, a lot can happen in the years leading up to the market forecasts. That includes commercial adaptation of the continuing evolution of military UAV applications, such as cooperative work between UAVs and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) – from next-generation combat platforms to the new generation of driverless tractors and other farm equipment.

“Military UAV technologies are very sophisticated compared to what is out there today for agricultural use, and there is interest in leveraging what they have developed for civilian applications,” Schimmelpfennig said. “Custom farm service providers, which are being used much more heavily than even 10 years ago, are faster at adopting new tech. I suspect their use of UAVs to collect data to support crop services will proceed faster than their adoption and ownership by family farmers.

ARS Graph Morris NDVI web

A chart summarizing 18,360 data points derived from RGB/near infrared images taken by a USDA quadcopter flying over a Minnesota field. It reflects the changes in NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) for the same crop variety over approximately three months.

“But there isn’t yet a clear consensus on which UAV technologies work best and how to best implement them. For example, [GPS] guidance has been very popular and ease of use of UAVs for guidance will make them more popular. In terms of sensors, farmers are collecting yield data from combines and collecting maps that can be very hard to interpret. That is not as useful as soil mapping and taking cores to determine the levels of nitrogen and such in the soil, which is not something easily done by automated equipment. If drone sensors can fly over an area and determine all that, it would really attract farmer interest.”

With the growing use of precision agriculture technologies and rising competition, today’s farmers, from small family operations to corporate-owned mega-farms, are becoming increasingly concerned about privacy and operational secrets used to give them an edge. With their heritage of surveillance and repeated “Peeping Tom” incidents among early civilian hobbyists, farmers also are concerned about the potential for UAV misuse by their competitors. That also extends to what UAV service providers might do with the data they collect.

“That’s a major issue, in my opinion – how concerned farmers are about the privacy of their data,” Schimmelpfennig added. “They don’t want their data shared or even co-mingled for use by companies or government agencies. The results so far show farmers want to control their own data and not share it unless they get something valuable in return. So what role UAVs will play in precision agriculture in the next decade is a combination of sensor technologies and what the drones themselves can do.

“Mapping, auto-guidance, variable rate technology, and how quickly those are being adopted vary today and will depend on the ease of use and what is learned from them. Farmers expected to get a lot out of yield mapping and became frustrated with the amount of work involved. But as the technology became easier to use, with more wireless applications and laptop compatibility, they have become happier with it. But UAVs will have to prove themselves, then word will spread. And as the tech gets easier to use, UAVs probably will make it easier for small farmers to survive.”

“In terms of sensors, farmers are collecting yield data from combines and collecting maps that can be very hard to interpret. That is not as useful as soil mapping and taking cores to determine the levels of nitrogen and such in the soil, which is not something easily done by automated equipment. If drone sensors can fly over an area and determine all that, it would really attract farmer interest.”

How and when – although almost certainly not “if” – UAVs become a major part of agriculture’s future remains to be seen. But USDA and academic researchers and early adopter farmers have few doubts, given the increasingly high-tech nature of modern farming.

“Agriculture advancement in the last 50 years or so was based on major discoveries at the plant, soil, water levels, using mostly chemical inputs without looking at the bigger picture, the position of agriculture within the larger environmental context. We need a bird’s-eye picture to look at the overall system and that is being and will be provided more and more at a larger scale and deeper depth by UAVs, in association with other technologies than have been developed in the past few decades,” Jaradat said.

“Looking to the future, it’s not necessarily gadgets or new types of machinery, but the ability to understand the overall system and how its complex components interact,” he continued. “ We don’t know enough about the complex nature of soil, which performs a very valuable service to humanity without us realizing it. When we can capture how the biological system within the soil environment works, we may have the next big lead into improving production and the environment. There are billions of bugs in our soil and we really don’t know how what we are doing impacts them – and what impact that, in turn, has on us.

“Whether it will be possible to look into the soil strata and see how things are interacting remains to be seen. We know there are instruments that can look below the surface to find archaeological remains, but we’re looking at something else – the biological status of the soil. Crop and natural plants reflect not only the environment surrounding them above ground, but even more the environment they experience through their root systems. So if we can model what we see above the surface, using UAVs, with what can be gleaned from how the root system interacts with the biological and physical components of the soil, that will be a big step forward,” Jaradat said.

Caption for top image: A Lockheed Martin Indago™ AG quadcopter used by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to capture as much information as possible on the characteristics of soils and plants at the ARS Swan Lake Research Farm in Morris, Minnesota. 

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of USDA Agricultural Research Service

This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.

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