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NDSU, collaborators set ag drone research plan

FARGO — Researchers at North Dakota State University are calling their upcoming work a “proof-of-concept” study that will help determine whether and how drones might help farmers and ranchers in everyday business.

John Nowatzki, an NDSU Extension Service ag machine systems specialist, is the principal investigator for the unmanned aircraft systems project, but it will include key cooperation with the University of North Dakota and others. Nowatzki described the $90,000 project in a UAS forum in Fargo on March 25.

The work will be based at the NDSU Research Extension Center in Carrington. Earlier discussion about work near Mapleton, N.D., has been scrapped because of Federal Aviation Administration rules about proximity to airports.

“We’re going to be flying the research once a week, during the growing season,” Nowatzki says. “We’ll probably go through the end of September. The idea is to see whether what we see from the aircraft is the same as what we can see on the ground.”

The researchers will deliver an interim study summary at the research station’s July 15 summer field day, as well as a final report in November. The project will develop data processing tools to convert images to data that help farmers, ranchers and consultants make decisions. One purpose is to study the feasible roles for private companies in businesses associated with the technology.

Crops, livestock

Blaine Schatz, director of the Carrington station, says that in most cases, the research can take advantage of existing trials. “We have all of this diversity of trials already going on, so we are able to quickly take advantage of existing research.”

For a variety of crops, they’ll look at such things as crop emergence, stand count, soil surface salinity, crop fertility, weeds and disease. In addition, they’ll do intensive monitoring of five commercial fields — three in corn and two in soybeans — all in Foster County.

In the soybean trial, the researchers will verify plant emergence and population twice — one week after planting and then 12 days after planting, coordinating ground information with UAS data. They’ll use optical sensors (Normalized Difference Vegetative Index) to study corn at the V5 and V8 vegetative growth stages.

Other studies will involve spring wheat, soybean and corn research already under way. Those plots help identify a range of early-season yield potential using indicators including nutrient levels, plant vigor and stand. Initial disease studies will focus on sclerotinia (white mold) in soybeans and edible beans and tan spot, septoria and rust in spring wheat.

For cattle, the research center will see whether UAS data can determine livestock movements to indicate disease and breeding activity, measure feedlot surface temperatures for effects of various bedding materials or compost pile temperatures.

Many collaborators

The project has a bevy of supporters, including the North Dakota Department of Commerce and its Research ND Project. The NDSU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department is coordinating the study. The North Dakota Corn Council and the North Dakota Soybean Council are supplying funds.

UND’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence is doing the flying. The research operates under Northern Plains UAS Test Site authority. UND will fly the first missions, using a Draganflyer rotocopter for the initial flying.

Later, the project will purchase its own Trimble UX5, fixed-wing plane with a 1-meter wingspan. A company called Field of View is supplying Tetracam cameras and sensors.

Also at the meeting, officials from various agencies and companies reported that FAA rules have not changed significantly for drone activities in agriculture. Essentially, farmers need FAA permission to fly, and can’t do anything commercially or for hire. Some of these areas are uncertain. The FAA allows people to fly the vehicles for recreational purposes, under 400 feet, and no closer than three miles from an airport.