Imagine seeing a chart that pinpoints which plants in a field are invisibly stressed, which healthy-looking soils are low in nutrients, which contaminants are present in a water source, or which animals in a feedlot are running a fever.
In such data lies the promise of remote sensing. One application of this technology involves installing sophisticated sensors on small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that could fly quickly, quietly, and safely over a field or farm and return with an abundance of crucial agricultural information. Small aerial vehicles may eventually offer a less costly, more precise, and less cumbersome way to employ remote sensing than currently available platforms for the technology, such as satellites.
“Unmanned aerial vehicles can do a lot, and the key technology are the sensors. That’s where The Texas A&M University System will excel,” said Dr. Craig Nessler, director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, at a UAS symposium on August 12.
More than 100 people from AgriLife Research and other units of the Texas A&M University System attended the symposium at the AgriLife Center and looked for ways to collaborate.
Texas is an ideal place for researching agricultural uses of UAS due to the state’s abundant agricultural lands, a Federal Aviation Administration–approved UAS testing site, and the high level of UAS expertise within the A&M System.
“The A&M System and in particular AgriLife Research have an incredible opportunity to dominate in this area nationally,” said Dr. Luis Cifuentes, vice president for research, commercialization and outreach at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
A sharp increase in UAS use in recent years has led the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ground most UAS until they can be shown to work safely and unobtrusively within the nation’s airspace. The FAA currently prohibits the use of UAS in agricultural research. However, aeronautical research on agricultural UAS is allowed.
To enable this research, FAA has designated six UAS test sites across the country. The Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence & Innovation (LSUASC), a part of the Texas A&M System, is one of these sites. LSUASC includes several large testing ranges near Corpus Christi and the Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems (CANVASS) on the Riverside campus of Texas A&M University.
“A whole-scale opening of the national air space will require a tremendous amount of effort on everybody’s part,” said Cifuentes. “The A&M System has made a large investment in the LSUASC test site. By the end of next year, we will have invested over $10 million. This is a great opportunity to get involved in a brand new field that has tremendous opportunities.”
Among the people Cifuentes may be working with is Dr. Marlan Scully, who has a joint appointment with Texas A&M University and Princeton University and specializes in quantum optics, among other topics. Scully presented a talk on the vast possibilities for sensors for UAS and agricultural applications. Existing sensors need to be optimized for use in UAS and new sensors must be developed.
Dr. John Valasek, professor of aerospace engineering and director of CANVASS, encourages AgriLife researchers to use the range and aircraft at the Riverside campus to test the sensors.
“If you have a system to test, if you need to get the bugs worked out, we can do all that here at the Riverside campus before transitioning it to one of the very large test ranges,” Valasek said.
From promise to reality
Much work is needed to make the promise of UAS meet reality, said Dr. Steve Searcy, department head for biological and agricultural engineering at Texas A&M University and AgriLife Research.
Further research will help convince the FAA, the government, and the public that UAS are safe, Searcy said. More research will also help find the best ways of employing UAS. What type of aircraft should be used? How should sensors be employed to acquire useful information without creating heaps of unnecessary data? Will farmers need to employ their own UAS or find it more economical to hire a specialized company to image their farms?
Despite all the steps needed before UAS can be used in agriculture, the promise of remote sensing technologies is spectacular.
High-tech, high-resolution, on-demand imaging of fields and farms could help growers use 50% less pesticides and herbicides and 40% less fertilizer, according to a recent article in Modern Farmer. Using the data could result in healthier crops, greater profits for growers, and a healthier environment. Over the next decade, remote sensing in agriculture could create thousands of jobs and bring billions to our country’s economy, according to an article in USA Today.
“Achieving the long-term potential of UAS for agriculture requires active research today,” Searcy said. “The Texas A&M University System should be involved in this effort.”