DroneDrone technology is taking flight in North Dakota, with farmers implementing new methods pioneered by groundbreaking researchers.

Throughout the state, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are already being utilized to some degree on farms and ranches. Much of it is trial and error, however, or still in the testing phase. But the potential for UAS in agriculture – and other applications – is far greater than current usage.

As research continues to develop, and safety and privacy regulations become more clearly defined, agricultural expectations for UAS technology are impressive indeed.

“There are a number of industry forecasts predicting that agriculture will be the leading industry sector to use unmanned aircraft here in the United States,” says Aaron Reinholz, director of research operations in North Dakota State University’s Office of Research and Creative Activity. “There are tremendous opportunities for this technology to be used to further precision agriculture. That’s really what we’re doing a fair amount of research on here – to validate expectation.”

A drone takes flight at the NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center.

A drone takes flight at the NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center.

Research is Key

Part of Reinholz’s work is in UAS research through a relationship with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks. North Dakota’s test site is one of six that collaborate with the Federal Aviation Administration and other industry partners to develop equipment, systems, rules and procedures to expand the uses of UAS in many different capacities, including agriculture.

“It allows us to utilize that test site and their capabilities to benefit our researchers here at North Dakota State University as well as our sister institution at the University of North Dakota,” Reinholz says.

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NDSU’s UAS program was established in 2014, and in 2016 it took a huge step – or takeoff – with the operation of a larger unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) known as Hermes 450. The school has partnered with Elbit Systems of America, an Israel-based company, to fly the aircraft, which has a 35-foot wingspan and a flight time of around 18 hours. “The purpose of (the Hermes 450) project is to compare and contrast the results you can get from a larger aircraft at higher altitudes to a small UAV at lower altitudes,” Reinholz says. Larger UAVs have the ability to stay in the air longer and collect imagery at more than 50,000 acres per hour. This is a vast improvement on the one square mile per hour capabilities of smaller crafts.

Such information can be used to manage crops, fertilizer or even identify infestations more efficiently.

Many Potential Uses

Jim Reimers, who grows corn and soybeans on much of his family’s 30,000-acre Reimers Farms in Jamestown, sees the promise of UAS in agriculture. He has been experimenting with the technology since around 2013, working closely with John Nowatzki, extension agricultural machine systems specialist at NDSU, for data collecting, imaging of field and planting abnormalities, and other applications.

“For us, it’s still new,” Reimers says of his experiments. “We’re trying to see how to make a fit for it, so we’ve used observations on different parts of the land, with different objectives in mind. If we find things that work, then we want to expand that to a lot more acres within the farm.”

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Reimers, who owns and operates his farm with his brother, Dale, and nephew, says that drones can have several benefits for farmers. They can be used to optimize nitrogen applications in corn, for instance, or discern conditions for planting varieties of soybeans.

“Another use is in crop insurance,” Reimers says. “Say there’s livestock damage from your neighbor’s cow. People can’t go out and walk the whole field. But you can fly over and quite easily see the damage and get a better idea of the area involved in the incident.”

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