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Published February 17, 2014, 09:52 AM

Unmanned aerial systems could become ag's next best bet

The Federal Aviation Administration’s much-anticipated Dec. 30 announcement that Grand Forks, N.D., had been selected as a test site for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) left those working in and around the industry flying high.

By: Kris Bevill, Forum News Service

The Federal Aviation Administration’s much-anticipated Dec. 30 announcement that Grand Forks, N.D., had been selected as a test site for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) left those working in and around the industry flying high.

Because only six sites in the U.S. were federally approved to integrate UAS into national airspace, proponents say billions of dollars of economic activity could be generated for test site states as UAS-related companies set up shop and test their equipment. Further economic impact is expected as unrelated industries begin to incorporate UAS technology into their operations and become trendsetters in their own right.

North Dakota’s largest industry, agriculture, has already been targeted as one of the most likely industries to utilize UAS technology. Certainly, there are many questions regarding commercial use of UAS that need to be answered first, but one of the benefits of UAS in agriculture is that it minimizes several concerns regarding UAS use, according to Michael Toscano, president and CEO for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

“Agriculture is ideal because right now the two biggest concerns with UAS are safety and privacy,” he says. “If you’re using it for agriculture, there are a lot of fields with no people in them, and vegetables don’t care if you watch them. So there is an ideal case of where this technology can be used.”

While it will be at least 2015 before any regulatory standards are expected to be put in place for the commercial use of UAS, many of the region’s ag and aerial experts have already begun using the systems for training purposes and have determined that the potential uses for UAS in ag are unlimited.

Training next-generation producers

Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, N.D., is one of several education institutions in the region, including the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University and Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minn., which has already incorporated UAS training into its curriculum.

Brad Mathson, a precision agriculture instructor at LRSC, has been using UAS in his courses since last year. He sees unlimited potential for the types of UAS applications in agriculture and has been incorporating it into the precision ag curriculum wherever it is needed.

Much of the training is currently devoted to evaluating various types of systems and instruments, such as cameras and imaging tools, that can be used in agriculture. Students also learn to fly the equipment and interpret the data collected. This summer he hopes to also implement UAS in field scouting and expects that LRSC will also be collaborating with UND in Grand Forks on testing protocols for agriculture.

Mathson says the LRSC’s precision ag center focuses on livestock and crop farming for UAS, and he thinks the advantages to both industries is untold because it will allow producers to identify and evaluate issues as they happen as opposed to after the damage has been done.

“I liken it to the medical field … the ag industry has looked at yield data for the past 20 years, which is like an autopsy because, at that point, the crop has been harvested, and it’s too late to fix any growing problem,” he says. “This type of technology is like getting a CAT scan. We can actually see the program develop, usually before the human eye would even notice the problem. That’s the most exciting part about this is it’s a proactive instead of a reactive type of diagnostic tool.”

Similarly for cattle producers, UAS could be used to detect sickness or other issues. Mathson says LRSC is currently exploring using thermal imagery cameras to fly over cattle and measure their temperatures, which could be helpful in determining potential illnesses or during the breeding season.

Mathson notes that while satellite imagery is already used in agriculture, UAS could be more frequently used by individual farmers or as a service offered by a third party. He expects there will be a contingency of early adopters in the region but does not expect widespread use of UAS for some time.

“We have to shake out a lot of the rules and regulations before we get to that point,” he says.

But as the growing global population continues to pressure farmers to produce higher yields on every field, the potential for UAS to help achieve that goal is great.

“If we’re going to meet the goal of doubling our yields by 2050 to handle the world population, we’re going to have to implement every tool we can to get to that level,” he says.

Industry impact

Doug McDonald, director of special projects at Grand Forks-based Unmanned Applications Institute International, agrees that the ag industry will be one of the biggest applications for UAS and that producers are primed to incorporate that type of technology into their operations.

“The ag producer today is very technologically savvy already,” he says. “They’ve got sensors tripping off their combines and tractors. They’ve historically used all kinds of fairly intricate maps in regards to soil and pH. With the inclusion of UAS, you can do a lot of that cheaper, quicker and more timely, so I think from a producer perspective, it’s going to add revenue. It’s going to be a great opportunity for agriculture to embrace some of the technological advances that they’ve already embraced, just ramped up.”

UAI International serves as a liaison between systems manufacturers, researchers and users of the equipment. McDonald says he has been active in working with area colleges and universities at the forefront of precision ag and UAS to identify the opportunities, needs and requirements to make UAS a viable tool for the farming industry. Producers in the area have shown a high level of interest, he says, but many are waiting for the technology to be proven. The test site in Grand Forks, along with the planned UAS-focused business and tech park in Grand Forks, dubbed Grand Sky, could help to usher that along.

Of the six test sites, North Dakota should have an advantage in agriculture applications because agriculture is the state’s largest industry, he says. Also, the state has an additional advantage in that several of its higher education institutions have had an ongoing focus on UAS.

“I think we certainly have a leg up on some of our competition, but we have to get going,” he says.

Timeline to integration

Surely the UAS industry is still in the fledgling stage, but the ramp up to commercial application is well under way. Terry Sando, UAS sector senior manager at Grand Forks Area Economic Development Corp., is part of a team at the organization working feverishly to build upon the momentum of the city’s test site designation status and attract companies and researchers that will make the area a hub for UAS development. The Grand Sky park, which is in the final stages of development, according to Sando, will hopefully allow the EDC to cluster multiple companies working in sensor and UAS technologies, positively impacting the state and expanding the site’s global footprint.

Sando has also been working with area implement dealers to evaluate their next steps in incorporating UAS into their service offerings. UAS offers the opportunity to collect massive amounts of data, but it is yet to be determined how best to interpret and act on that data, he says. Implement dealers might simply want to sell the units for farmers to use and interpret the data themselves, or they might decide to employ specialists to use UAS and interpret data for the farmer as a service. Either way, Sando expects implements to jump on board quickly.

“I expect they’ll see there’s going to be a lot of money in this, and they’ll want to actively participate,” he says.

Currently, the cost of unmanned systems varies wildly depending on the size of the system and other factors. LRSC has been able to minimize the cost of its UAS through a collaborative relationship with the manufacturer, a Wisconsin-based startup called DMZ Aerial, which is loaning its product to the college. Company co-founder Mitchell Fiene says he and his cousin, Zach Fiene, founded the company a couple of years ago after their summer jobs as crop scouts inspired them to develop a better way to monitor fields.

“Now we’re in 11 states, as well as Canada, and our units are enjoyed by a lot of co-ops and retailers,” Mitchell says. “Most of our customers are in the USDA [U.S. Department of Education] top 100 co-ops and independent retailers. It’s been really exciting.”

DMZ began selling its products last summer and earned $150,000 by the end of the year. The company’s most popular system sells for $4,500 and includes a case, batteries, a camera and options for modified cameras.

“It’s a really good entry level system because you’re able to essentially learn how to fly it in about a half hour,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell, who is still a college student, foresees unlimited potential for the company as the UAS industry gets off the ground in the U.S. He thinks the market has immense potential to grow and that DMZ’s connection with LRSC and proximity to the Grand Forks test site will benefit the company.

“I think it will be a very positive impact because essentially we will have free reign to test these systems without having to take a trip to Canada,” he says, adding that it’s “very possible” the company will establish a location in Grand Forks to test its equipment. “I think North Dakota is definitely going to be a hub for UA[S] research,” he says. “Right now, the sky is the limit.”