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North Dakota UAV research takes off

John Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural engineer in Fargo, is helping to coordinate field studies of unmanned aerial vehicles, in cooperation with University of North Dakota experts in Grand Forks.(Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)(Embargo to June 3, 2014, 1 a.m.)

The first three flights with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been completed at North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research Extension Center, in a cooperative study involving University of North Dakota personnel.

Blaine Schatz, director of the Carrington center, says initial flights took place May 5, 16 and 23. The timing of the next one will depend in part on crop stages, Schatz says.

In the latest flight, the researchers used the UAV to determine different weed populations, in an effort tied to studies involving herbicide strategies.

Other initial studies with the drones will involve crop residue levels that result after various crop rotations and tillage practices. UAVs could also be used to record information on stand counts.

A winter wheat study will look at different fertility levels, including nitrogen, Schatz says. Another trial will involve the use of starter fertilizer on spring wheat, to show contrasts with in-furrow fertility treatments, among other things.

“We have about 40-plus trials slated for assessment with the UAVs,” Schatz says.

The project so far is being run with a Dragonflyer, a helicopter-type vehicle operated by a crew of three or four UND individuals. One is a pilot, another is an observer and another operates a computer. Extra oversight is needed because of strict guidelines and regulations enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration, as potential uses for the drones expand. Schatz says one of the key concerns is making sure the drones don’t interfere with traditional aviation or birds.

John Nowatzki, an NDSU Extension Service agricultural engineer, says the project has worked out well so far.

“The only problem is that … this last time, there was a problem in the sensor system that sent information back to the computer,” Nowatzki says.

A new addition

On May 29, NDSU acquired its own Trimble UX5, a fixed wing airplane that retails for about $50,000. Its battery allows the machine to fly for about an hour. Results between the two systems will be compared to help farmers and others understand the differences. NDSU is working on permits that should allow the UX5 to fly in mid-June. Both planes will be on display at the Carrington research field day July 15.

The biggest difference between this and other remote work dating to the 1990s is the autopilot function. Today, a computer can fly the device using programming by operators, he says.