AgCenter researchers study use of drones in crop monitoring

News Release Distributed 12/20/13

BATON ROUGE, La. – LSU AgCenter researchers are trying to determine if using unmanned aerial vehicles, sometimes known as drones, can help farmers monitor their crops for potential problems.

“We are investigating the use of UAVs to see what the capabilities are,” said Randy Price, LSU AgCenter engineer. “From what we can tell, the technology appears to be promising.”

Price said a UAV was used recently to check on freeze damage in a sugarcane field by taking photographs that could be viewed once the vehicle returned to the ground.

Price said one of the first projects involves sending up a UAV equipped with a sensor to measure the vegetative index of a crop. The device measures the green growth of a plant, giving a possible indication if additional fertilizer is needed on specific areas of a field.

Jimmy Flanagan, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Mary Parish, is learning to use a helicopter UAV to fly over sugarcane fields to determine if adequate fertilizer has been applied across a field.

Flanagan said he learned about UAVs in agriculture when he attended a county agent meeting last year in Nebraska. He said the aircraft will be useful in maturing fields of sugarcane and corn where it is difficult to scout tall crops for disease and insufficient fertilizer.

Flanagan said some of the UAVs are small helicopters with three or four rotors. Radio-controlled airplanes are available, too. “The copter is good for certain things, but the fixed wing is faster for covering larger acreage.”

Price said Charles Malveaux, an LSU AgCenter research associate, has built three UAVs capable of flying themselves on a programmed mission. “We’re in the process of building two more right now.”

Price said the Federal Aviation Administration is writing regulations for UAVs and drones to prevent interfering with manned aircraft, including agricultural airplanes and helicopters. The unmanned devices are still classified as hobby aircraft not available for commercial use, he said, but new regulations will address commercial applications.

Flanagan said the LSU AgCenter is applying for a special FAA permit to conduct further research and the eventual publication of a research paper.

Price said entomologists will be able to use the pilotless vehicles to scout for insects, and weed scientists will be able to quickly view a field for herbicide-resistant weeds.

Eric Webster, LSU AgCenter weed scientist, said UAVs might be helpful for farmers to spray swaths in a field not sprayed with herbicides by conventional aerial applicators.

Steve Linscombe, director of the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station, said the battery-powered aircraft might be useful in rice breeding.

“We think that they might be useful in creating wind movement that might facilitate the transfer of pollen from restorer lines to male sterile lines to create the F1 seed,” he said.

Bruce Schultz

12/21/2013 12:09:40 AM
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