It's a Bird. It's a Plane. It's the Future.
Unmanned aerial vehicles offer agricultural producers a new type of management tool.
On a cold, but sunny October day, nearly 100 4-H students filed into the Ardmore Convention Center for their Southeast District Leadership Conference. What would be a day filled with leadership development exercises would also be a day they learned about the importance of technology in agriculture.
After the opening welcome, students broke into small groups for workshops. Frank Hardin, Ph.D., Noble Academy educational outreach manager, introduced himself and three other unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) specialists who discussed the importance of UAV technology in agriculture.
"This technology has the potential to be a useful tool in agriculture," Hardin said. "We want to get students more interested in technology and how various tools can be applied to agriculture in the future."
Afterwards, Hardin and Mike Komp, Noble Foundation spatial technology services supervisor, led the students out to the parking lot for some hands-on demonstrations with the UAVs, also called drones. "They are fun to operate," Komp said. "It's also incredible what one can do and the data it provides."
Tresa Trammell and Kushendra Shah use an iPad to safely monitor an unmanned aerial vehicle's flight.
UAVs are a multidisciplinary research and operational tool. The Noble Foundation spatial technology services team use UAVs to assist researchers with various types of research projects. UAV imagery allows researchers to acquire higher quality data more often, and it is less expensive to use than other large-scale aerial imagery technology. UAVs collect thousands of images to help researchers analyze different eco-sites and changes.
"We are taking images that were once acquired from ground level or low frequency satellites at a more effective rate," Komp said. "This allows researchers, and ultimately producers, to make more timely decisions for less money."
The technology can also be used for operational resource management, such as taking inventory of equipment and forage, locating and counting cattle, and better control of prescribed burns.
"A cattle rancher could count actual hay bales by flying a UAV over the property," said Mike Proctor, Noble Foundation agriculture research associate. "The rancher could then look at future projections of hay needs by knowing how much was available in the beginning and how much is left over."
In turn, being able to evaluate forage quality and availability would help the rancher better manage the cattle's nutrition needs. "It's important for us to provide ways for producers to be good stewards of their resources," Proctor said.
Other metrics can be collected with UAVs such as identifying pecan trees from other vegetation. An aerial view of the tree tops allows researchers to analyze the treatment effects to develop a better disease and pest management plan.
Additional types of data can be acquired through sensors that are attached to UAVs. Different sensors capture various types of images that help researchers gather and analyze data. Currently, only a few sensors are available but these are already showing benefit by allowing landowners to collect rainfall amounts across a property or determine water profiles in a source.
"Collecting a pond's volume and surface area is normally a tedious procedure," Proctor said. "But with UAVs, we can directly measure the surface area; and along with lidar data, we can estimate pond volume easily and quickly."
Finding time to properly manage difficult-to-access properties can be a headache for land managers. With UAVs, they can remotely check on the property fences, cattle, vegetation, etc. without having to physically be on the property.
Another effective technique in land resource management is prescribed burning. Many landowners look past it because of the many unknowns that come with it. "It's hard to judge what the fire is actually doing and how much smoke is being emitted from our eyesight at ground level," Proctor said. "Flying a UAV above a prescribed burn allows us to see what is going on in the whole burn area. Aerial views let us look for any hot spots near our fire breaks after a burn, which is a huge benefit in itself."
Unmanned aerial vehicles have improved researchers' ability to study cotton root rot in alfalfa fields. UAVs also hold potential for other agricultural applications.
Putting It to the Test
The Noble Foundation's use of large-scale aerial imagery began in 2014 with a cotton root rot study using very-large-scale aerial imagery (VLSA). The images and data collected with this technology allowed Carolyn Young, Ph.D., Noble Foundation plant pathologist and mycologist, to begin studies of the cotton root rot disease in alfalfa fields.
"We wanted and needed to better understand how cotton root rot moves in the field," Young said. "Aerial imagery on a large scale would help us better visualize the disease all at once instead of what we could only see with our bare eyes on the ground."
When UAVs entered the research market, the Noble Foundation acquired one to further the use in current and future research projects. The switch to UAV from VLSA data provides researchers with more data and images to analyze. In order for Young and her team to help agricultural producers manage cotton root rot, they need to see the disease in alfalfa fields from a bird's-eye view.
"We are able to put layers of images together to better track the disease," Young said. "We can differentiate between bare ground and alfalfa stands. It's hard to get efficient stand percentage just by standing in the field. UAV imagery provides a different perspective on how cotton root rot spreads throughout a field."
Cotton root rot is a soil-borne disease, meaning it is always in the soil. However, it is only active in the summer months. Different sensors on the UAVs allow Young to analyze various environmental conditions such as soil temperature and depth, and rainfall amount, to help determine the disease's peak time. "We have to understand all potential effects of the disease in order to get ahead of it and work on a control method," Young said. "We need all the pieces to fit together before we can provide a management prescription to agricultural producers."
In 2015, the Center for Advanced Agricultural Systems and Technology (CAAST) was created to bring together existing research programs that strive to answer producer questions through research related to the sustainability of agriculture production systems in the Southern Great Plains. Technology plays an integral role in improving agricultural systems. An important function of CAAST is developing and testing new and innovative technology, like UAVs.
"With CAAST, we have a special opportunity to incorporate UAVs into our research and operational efforts at the Noble Foundation," said Evan Whitley, Ph.D., CAAST manager. "Through projects conducted on our research farms, we are able to incorporate this technology and learn ways UAVs can benefit agricultural producers."
While new technologies can be excellent tools for agricultural producers, they can be expensive to adopt. Producers may not have the time or resources to comprehensively look into a specific new technology and how it might benefit their operation, especially since so many new technologies are constantly being developed. The Noble Foundation has the resources and capabilities to vet these new technologies and provide this information to producers.
"The research aspect is exciting," Whitley said. "I look forward to the day where we can access timely information from the office or desktop. Land and operation managers will be able to manage their resources more effectively and efficiently without exhausting human resources."
Continuing to Learn
Building off of the current research uses, the Noble Foundation is working to develop and incorporate new data-rich tools, such as UAV images, to help determine stocking rates and carrying capacities, and to support grazing program development for producers in the organization's consultation program. These tools will not take decision-making out of producers' hands. Instead, it will provide them with consistent data and information to make effective decisions quicker.
"It's exciting to see what opportunities this technology holds for rangelands," Komp said. "The row crop industry is already using UAVs, but rangelands are much more complex and diverse. UAVs will benefit more people and land as technology improves."
The Noble Foundation UAV specialists will continue learning the technology to broaden its use across the organization and research farms.
"There is a considerable wow factor to UAV technology," Whitley said. "But we aren't quite there yet to recommend producers go out and get one. We don't want to look at these areas through a tunnel. It is important to look at agricultural systems on a broader level, and we want to conduct research with the awareness that one area will impact many others. But it's clear this technology has come a long way. It's a new type of 'boots on the ground.'"