K-State Showcases Drones Designed To Aid Farmers

By  | 

LINDSBORG, Kan. (WIBW) -- It's called precision agriculture- using using unmanned aerial systems to improve the care of crops and livestock- and the emerging technology has farmers lining up to buy it, according to industry leaders.

On Tuesday, Kansas State University Salina hosted a flight demonstration of several different unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at the Great Plains Joint Training Center in Lindsborg. K-State is one of two four-year institutions in the country involved in the development of the unmanned aircrafts.

"It’s a way for us to showcase an often misunderstood technology for a purpose that really could touch everyone on the planet and that’s agriculture. These small devices have the ability to increase agriculture productivity greatly in some cases," said Dr. Kurt Barnhart, a professor, head of the department of aviation, and executive director of the Applied Aviation Research Center at Kansas State University.

The drones, ranging in price from around $5,000 to upwards of $100,000, take video and color infrared imagery that can detect subtle differences in crops that can't be seen with the naked eye. They're designed to help farmers with their crop yields- detecting infect infestations and diseases in crops and processing images and data so that farmers can make the best decisions when it comes to what they're producing.

"This technology allows a farmer to have better situational awareness so he or she will be able to make better decisions on growing the crop on the fields they’re involved with…. in order to have the best yield on that crop, utilizing the least amount of pesticides, the least amount of water and the most effort to get back the best amount of return on investment," said Michael Toscano, president & CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International

The agriculture sector is expected to be the largest market for UAS technology, Toscano said, and they can save farmers the significant cost of hiring or operating manned aircraft.

"It’s comprised of the thing that flies. That’s the thing that gets most of the attention- that’s the platform. You have what it carries which is the mission package payload and that’s the important piece because that’s what generates the information. You have the communication link which is how that information is transmitted back down to the ground station. And the most important piece is the human being. It’s given to a human being who is controlling the whole operation and getting that information that is critical to the farmer," he said.

Right now, farmers can use UAS for personal use over their individual fields and Toscano says in the near future, farmers will be able to hire companies to come out and survey their crops.

"By the year 2050, we’re going to have another 2 billion people on this planet and the question is how are we going to feed those people? So we have to come up with better ways to produce more product with the same amount of land and a limited amount of resources," he told WIBW.

It’s predicted that in the first year that unmanned aircrafts are introduced into the national airspace, it will create 770 new jobs at K-State and $750 million in economic impact. On a global standpoint, in the first three years the aircrafts are allowed to fly in the national airspace, they will generate $13.6 billion in economic impact and create around 70,000 jobs, officials said.

According to K-State,university researchers have been able to use UAS to far more accurately and efficiently locate and quantify harmful algae affecting many Kansas lakes and ponds. The university has also successfully demonstrated that UAS can be used to greatly reduce the time required to identify how environmental and genetic interactions affect the characteristics of plants. In addition, researchers are currently working on projects that will deliver detailed economic benefits on how UAS can impact growers, seed distributors, and crop breeders.

"We can fly these systems for a very low cost, get that imagery to a farmer or business that may need to use it very quickly and the resolution is just incredible. There’s a lot of different things we can do. We can monitor drought, plant health in terms of disease, pests and all kinds of things. It’s going to increase their productivity for a very low cost. It’s just going to make affordable for them to get more out of that acre that they have," Dr. Barnhart explained.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act was signed into law last year and includes important provisions on the integration of UAS into the national airspace system by September 2015.

"Farmers may share one of these or they may be available through a cooperative of some kind. I do think everyone who is in production agriculture will be using this data at some point," Dr. Barnhart added.