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Published January 21, 2014, 04:32 PM

Drones for farms a challenge, but popular topic at Precision Ag Summit

Topics at this year’s Precision Ag Action Summit in Jamestown, N.D., ranged from Google Glass, a technology for putting a smartphone into eyeglass frames, to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), to the quality and ability to use data, which is becoming so voluminous that it has its own name — big data.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Technology might be a limit in precision agriculture, but the biggest limitation is imagination.

Topics at this year’s Precision Ag Action Summit in Jamestown, N.D., ranged from Google Glass, a technology for putting a smartphone into eyeglass frames, to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), to the quality and ability to use data, which is becoming so voluminous that it has its own name — big data.

After two full days of hearing speakers at the summit, farmer Kerby Weets from Ashby, Minn., rose to ask how much the far-flung drone systems might actually cost a farmer. Answers varied.

“Our system is made to cover a lot of acres really fast, really quickly,” assured Zach Fiene, co-founder of DMZ Ariel, in Prairie Du Sac, Wis., a UAS panelist who said his systems would be at the low end of the cost spectrum for UAS machines, at $2,500 to $5,500.

More expensive systems do more and might cost $15,000, said supplier Ryan Jensen, CEO and co-founder of HoneyComb UAS. Jensen said his system is used in the potato industry in western states.

“We found that crop value and monitoring frequency are important,” Jensen said. “The other thing to consider is the processing that needs to be done.”

What will it cost?

Despite variability and complexity, the costs don’t seem daunting to some farmers.

“I think right now it’s a little pricey,” Weets said. “As we get more technology rolling out, I can see a lot of that stuff cheapening up. I think this is a big thing. We’re on the cutting edge of a lot of this stuff.”

Weets could think of ways to use the new systems on a farm he operates with a brother near Alexandria, Minn., or on the tiling business he co-owns, or in his other work as an agronomist for a local cooperative.

“A system like this could add a lot of value to what I do on a day-to-day basis,” he said. With the tiling system, he could use 1-inch accuracy instead of remote sensing imagery, which he said has a resolution of about 3 feet. He said he’s going to buy and learn to fly a hobby model airplane to practice with.

Some 340 people attended the event in the two-day period. Ryan Aasheim, event coordinator for the Red River Valley Research Corridor, one of the main sponsors, along with the North Dakota Farmers Union, said attendance increased by nearly 100 over last year.

Aasheim said more UAS content drove this year’s interest, but there was a cross-section of people, sampling different software applications and technologies. He said the event had increased some of the break times, adding to the networking.

The show expanded this year into livestock to attract speakers and attendees. Mark Watne, president of the NDFU, said the event fits well into his organization’s educational goals.

“It’s exposing people, letting them decide whether they want to get involved,” Aasheim said.

Landing on the moon

Dale Reimers, a 55-year-old Jamestown farmer, said technology is something farms and organizations need to focus on more. He likened the messages from the conference to the John F. Kennedy challenge to put a man on the moon.

“It’s huge,” he said. Some of the technology will be tested this summer on Reimers’ brother’s farm operation east of Casselton, N.D. The study involves North Dakota State University and is funded by the North Dakota Soybean Council.

The event’s most impressive drone demonstration may have been one by Eric Harnisch, an NDSU electrical engineering graduate who lives in the Minneapolis area and works with Pulsar Operational Boundaries, based in Duluth, Minn., and Minot, N.D.

“You need to figure out the minimum information you need to make a business decision,” Harnisch said, demonstrating the difference between 2.5 centimeters of resolution and 10 centimeters. He said farmers will decide on resolution that doesn’t simply “pile more gigabytes” of data. He said cutting the data needed can mean changing the camera angle, reducing the amount of acreage taken in.

Harnisch said things such as wind speed and direction affect how the vehicles are flown, or how many flights are needed to collect data, as well as the load on batteries. Changes in weather and sun will dictate whether the data needs to be adjusted for interpretation to help farmers and crop consultants decide whether crops have problems with insect, disease or weed pests, among other things.

Waiting on FAA approval

The Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of changing regulations on drones. John Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural engineer who works with the technology, said the FAA might change some of the rules that require levels of written pilot training to operate the devices, but he thinks it might take more time than some people expect.

Issues of safety and privacy are the most difficult. Some demonstrations of just the smaller versions of the drones have been called off because of liability issues. Farmers may be asked to keep the devices specific distances from airports or other sensitive places.

One attendee, Laney Faleide, president and CEO of North Dakota-based SatShot LLC, which works with bringing satellite imaging technology to farmers, said all of the technologies have their role. Satellite imagery has 10- to 15-foot resolution. He thinks the system will be complementary, with satellite imagery used to see larger problems and drones used to take a closer look. Faleide said more satellites are being launched to improve that system.

Studies have shown that if UASs are developed by 2025, it will be an $82 billion industry, with 80 percent of the benefits seen in agriculture, said Kevin Price, a professor of agronomy at Kansas State University.

Inviting competitors

“The longer the FAA continues to hold the commercialization up, the more revenue will be lost in the United States to foreign countries that will be moving much further ahead of us,” Price said. “An entire industry will be held up.”

He said one area that will need to be addressed is how large the fields are, and whether line-of-sight rules will persist for farm applications.

Kansas started early in the technology, with the military working with the Kansas State campus in Salina.

“When we wanted to start moving into agricultural applications, it was speeding our progress, because (the military) already knew how to get the certificates from the FAA.”

Nowatzki emphasized it is “pretty obvious” that NDSU needs to be working with the University of North Dakota, with the school of aerospace and UAS center, and is already doing so. Similarly, Paul Gunderson, director of the Dakota Precision Ag Center at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, N.D., said his organization moved into the study of the UASs early-on, but cautioned against seeing it as too simple and urged more research, as well as more collaborative research among institutions.

UND-NDSU collaboration

“These platforms are inherently unstable, even with gyroscope technology,” Gunderson said. He said his center puts a priority on “hang times” for the vehicles and for ruggedness. He said they must be able to withstand 35 mph winds or more, which are ordinary in the Dakotas.

“Because of that, there are variations in camera angles, shadows, variations from morning to evening time.” He said some problems can be overcome with technology, but it’s important to stay in the real world — not adding six hours of flight to save 33 seconds of data downloading.

“From my perspective, there has to be a practicality that has to infuse this entire arena,” he said. “That doesn’t, however, negate the importance of the technology.”

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