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UAS prepares for takeoff in Hillsboro, North Dakota

HILLSBORO, N.D.--Rising several stories above the surrounding farmland, a crane topped off a stack of metal shipping containers with a military-grade antenna and radar dish Monday.

Bob DeMeo, director of flight operations for Elbit, inspects the projects UAS at the Hillsboro Airport. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

HILLSBORO, N.D.-Rising several stories above the surrounding farmland, a crane topped off a stack of metal shipping containers with a military-grade antenna and radar dish Monday.

The structure makes for an odd sight but will serve a vital function in an upcoming agricultural research project as it will receive data collected and transmitted by an unmanned aircraft.

That aircraft, accompanying ground control station and other equipment were shipped from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Hillsboro Regional Airport for the project and assembled by a crew with Elbit Systems, an Israeli unmanned aircraft manufacturer.

The project aims to compare imagery of farmland taken by Elbit's Hermes 450 aircraft to pictures of the same land photographed by satellites and smaller unmanned aircraft models.

If all goes according to plan, the aircraft could start collecting data at the end of this week.


"That's our goal. We looked out in the field, and there's corn coming up and we want to do stand counts," said John Nowatzki, lead researcher and an agricultural machine specialist at North Dakota State University. "Right now is the time to do it."

Data collected by the aircraft will be analyzed and potentially used to uncover nutrient deficiencies in crops, frost damage to plants and conducting stand counts, which involves counting the number of plants emerging per acre and comparing it to the number of seeds planted.

The Hermes will photograph an area 4 miles wide by about 40 miles long from various altitudes between 3,000 and 8,000 feet. Smaller unmanned aircraft will be flown at lower heights.

As a mid-size aircraft, the 20-foot-long Hermes requires a runway for takeoff. The aircraft has the capability to spend long periods of time flying, with flights lasting 20 hours or more possible. It can reach a maximum speed of 109 mph and can fly as high as 18,000 feet.

The aircraft's ground control station will be staffed by two pilots during flights. As the Federal Aviation Administration requires all unmanned aircraft flights to be within the line of sight of an observer, a chase plane will be used to keep an eye on the Hermes from the air.

The project is headquartered at the Hillsboro Regional Airport, which splits the difference for research partners from NDSU and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site headquartered at UND.

The research project is paid for in part by a grant from the North Dakota Department of Commerce, which accounts for half of the overall $715,000 allocated toward the project. Elbit covers the rest of the amount.

Property owners who do not want their land photographed can contact Nowatzki at John.Nowatzki@ndsu.edu or (701) 231-8213 with their field boundaries or a legal description of their land.


A crane lifts a mobile antenna atop four storage containers that serve as a base at the Hillsboro airport for the Israeli UAS company Elbit's project. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

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