Drones take flight at Husker Harvest Days

2015-09-16

Drones take flight at Husker Harvest Days
Farming and ranching is ready for takeoff.
Husker Harvest Days, an annual state fair of agricultural information and technology, launched its first demonstrations Tuesday of unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones.

While combines harvested corn and herding dogs corralled cattle elsewhere across the sprawling show grounds, a tiny aircraft buzzed in big circles in a glimpse of agriculture’s new frontier — monitoring crops from the sky and providing real-time information that can be put into action.

Dave Brauer of Friend, Nebraska, a crop consultant for more than 25 years, said the hype about how these camera-carrying miniature aircraft are poised to transform the ag industry is real.
“Its the most exciting thing Ive seen come about, he said. You fly it, download the imagery to your smartphone and you can walk right to a trouble spot in a field to see whats going on. Its a tool, just like a soil probe is a tool.

Precision agriculture is expected to claim a $65 billion piece of the $82 billion in revenue generated by drones during the next decade, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The unmanned aircraft industry is expected to create more than 100,000 jobs.

Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a proposed set of regulations for small unmanned aircraft, weighing less than 55 pounds, to integrate them into national airspace. The public comment period ends later this month.
Under the proposal, a person flying a small drone must be at least 17 years old, obtain an operator certificate and pass a test that would cost $150. Flights would be limited to an altitude of 500 feet above the ground. The aircraft must stay in sight of the operator.

The FAA is granting exemptions on a case-by-case basis until a final rule is implemented. It is expected sometime next year.
Among the five Nebraskan operations that have received FAA exemptions permitting them to operate the aircraft commercially is Midplains Ag of Elgin. Ryan Hemenway, an ag technology specialist, said the company purchased its aircraft for less than $30,000 in spring 2014.
The fixed-wing aircraft with an electric push motor was the solo performer during Tuesdays drone demonstrations. Steady south winds of 20 mph with gusts pushing 30 miles per hour cut short some flights.

Produced by senseFly of Switzerland, the rigid-foam, camera-equipped eBee Ag aircraft weighs 1.56 pounds and has a wingspan of 38 inches. Its maximum flight time is 45 minutes.
Hemenway said the aircraft is equipped with everything a pilot would expect to find in a private, single-engine airplane.
It knows all the flight conditions around it, he said. The only thing it doesnt have is eyeballs in front. The camera only looks straight down.

Hemenway said the aircraft has never failed to fly over a field and not spot a crop problem. The company is permitted to fly the aircraft for agriculture work in the northeast Nebraska region generally bounded by Ewing, Tilden, Petersburg and Bartlett. Altitude is limited to 400 feet.

If theres something you can do to fix it, its worth the money, he said. The biggest key to it is return on investment. You have to find a problem that is fixable or prevent something from happening.
Midplains Ag charges $3 per acre to provide a variety of photographs, ranging from thermal to multi-spectral. A crop prescription will be written for an additional $1 per acre, Hemenway said.
Nathan Stein, a Fort Dodge, Iowa, farmer and manager for senseFly, said drones offer valuable instant information.
Imagery has a shelf life. The longer it sits there, the less valuable it is, he said.

Within hours of a flight, farmers can make a prescription for a field and plug it into the tractor, where onboard computers apply precise amounts of fertilizer or other products where they are required.
There is no end to what we can do, Stein said.
Stein started working with senseFly three years ago. The initial reaction among many farmers was that drones for agriculture were a crazy idea. Some people feared they would use to invade personal privacy.

We got past the, ‘Im going to shoot that out of the sky remarks, Stein said. Now its hard to find somebody who doesnt know about them.
Mike Cruikshank of Arcadia, Nebraska, has been using a four-rotor device known as a quadcopter on his Hayes Creek Farms since last year.
He sends the aircraft out on inspection missions of pivot irrigation systems, crops and fences. Last spring, he flew the quadcopter behind his 24-row corn planter to monitor the condition of hoses on the implement and the planting depth of seeds. At harvest, he flies the device to assess the combines operation.

And he takes scenic aerial photographs of his parents farmstead.
Were finding all kinds of uses for it, he said. Its a glorified toy, but its a great tool, he said.
The copter even solved a mystery. Cruikshank discovered a narrow line through a corn field. It didnt appear to be damage from bugs or a fertilizer problem. He put the copter in the air and discovered that it was a game trail created by deer who use the same trampled path from the time the field was planted through the growth of the crop.
Most of all, Cruikshank said, the drone allows him to cover more ground more quickly.
Thats the name of the game, do more with less, he said.



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This week, the research team released more details about the project in an ENDO 2020 abstract to be published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society.



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