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Drones could help solve growing demand for produce, agriculture expert says

The world's population has tripled since John Nowatzki was born more than five decades ago, but acres of farmland needed to feed it continues to shrink.

The world's population has tripled since John Nowatzki was born more than five decades ago, but acres of farmland needed to feed it continues to shrink.

The pressure is on for farmers to produce more crops on less land, and unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, may be the tool to help them meet that growing demand.

That's where Nowatzki, an agricultural machine systems specialist at North Dakota State University, comes into the picture. He and other colleagues have delved into researching potential agricultural applications for unmanned aircraft. He presented those uses to an audience at a monthly speaking event called Prairie Buzz held in the UND Center for Innovation.

"We have to be able to produce more food, and I think farmers certainly see themselves as people feeding the world," Nowatzki said.

With about 1 million acres of farmland lost each year to urban development or climate change, getting the most out of a field is a must for feeding people and for farmers' bottomlines.

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So far, researchers have explored ways to use images captured by cameras on unmanned aircraft to count plants, identify those affected by disease or lack of moisture, find weeds among crops and discover weeds resistant to herbicide.

Having that data can help farmers make strategic decisions when it comes to spending money on fertilizer or pest control, which in the end can save money because problem areas can be pinpointed and addressed. Better crop management leads to higher yields, which in turn means more food for the growing population.

The technology also has use for ranchers, who may use images to count cattle or thermal data to identify animals with increased body temperatures. Those higher body temperatures may mean the animal is sick, ready to breed or is a day or so away from giving birth.

While research into more applications is ongoing, some farmers and rancher have started to embrace the technology.

"There really are a lot of unmanned aerial vehicles used in crop and livestock production across North Dakota," Nowatzki said.

Some farmers and ranchers are flying drones themselves, but companies have begun to pop up around the country offering flight services.

Those services extend beyond agriculture, with some such as Grand Forks-based SkySkopes focusing on infrastructure inspections.

Andrew Schill, lead instructor pilot for the company, was the second speaker of the evening and took the audience through day-to-day flight operations.

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Each flight is a learning experience, as the environments vary and can even interfere with the operation of aircraft.

Schilll recounted flying over drainage ditches near Bagley, Minn., and experiencing problems with the aircraft losing its link to its operator's controls. When this happens, many unmanned aircraft are programmed to return to the pilot.

After some experimenting, Schill said he determined nearby aging power lines were emitting an electromagnetic interfering that cut the link from the aircraft to the pilots.

"I figured out we needed to fly above the power lines in a straight line," he said. "So that was an interesting learning curve to figure out."

Other jobs have been completed in typical North Dakota winter conditions, which Schill said can be hard on the aircraft's battery. In freezing temperatures, a battery that may last for a 20 minute flight may only function for five minutes or so.

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