Archive for Sunday, July 21, 2013

Farmers and ranchers asked to embrace drone technology

July 21, 2013


On a clear, sunny day earlier this month, researchers from Kansas State University stood in an open field near Salina and demonstrated a flying object that could easily have been mistaken for a simple model airplane.

The V-shaped orange aircraft with about a five-foot wingspan soared at low altitudes over the field, making simple turns and maneuvers, circling around and then returning back to the controller.

At first glance, it didn't look much different from the sort of model airplanes that have been popular with hobbyists for years. But K-State researchers, as well as industry experts and a growing number of elected officials, say this vehicle represents the cutting edge of agricultural technology.

Kevin Price, an agronomy researcher at Kansas State University, demonstrates an unmanned aerial vehicle called a Zephyr that has been adapted for use in the agriculture industry. Industry officials say drone technology has many applications outside military uses, and Kansas could be a leading player in its development.

Kevin Price, an agronomy researcher at Kansas State University, demonstrates an unmanned aerial vehicle called a Zephyr that has been adapted for use in the agriculture industry. Industry officials say drone technology has many applications outside military uses, and Kansas could be a leading player in its development.

That's because this plane carried some of the same surveillance technology that the U.S. military has been employing in its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or “drones,” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The plane was equipped with GPS navigational software and specialized miniature infrared cameras that can take high-resolution images of the ground below, enabling farmers to monitor plant health, locate trouble spots in their fields that can't be seen from the ground and even help make more accurate predictions of their eventual crop yields.

Drone advocates say the technology could provide a huge boost to the Kansas economy, spawning thousands of new high-paying jobs in the aviation industry and producing billions of dollars worth of new economic activity.

“As a global leader in aviation and aerospace, Kansas is a pioneer in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems market, which holds great promise for boosting the economy and creating jobs in our state,” said U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, who attended the demonstration in Salina. “The number of ways farmers and ranchers can utilize UAS are endless.”

But as the drone industry attempts to make the transition from military to civilian markets, including the agricultural industry, officials acknowledge they have one big hurdle to overcome: the passionate suspicion and scorn that many people, especially farmers and ranchers, have toward the whole idea of drone technology.

“Yeah, we've certainly seen it emerge,” said Steve Gitlin, spokesman for California-based AeroVironment, Inc., a leading maker of UAS vehicles. “A lot of it is because people don't know this large category exists. All they know is what they see in the news — large, menacing systems that sometimes carry arms and sometimes kill many people. It's an educational process.”

Legislating against drones

Just last summer, Republicans in Congress introduced legislation to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from using drones to fly over farms and ranches. That came after false reports circulated on the internet that the EPA was using drones to search for Clean Water Act violations.

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the Kansas Legislature to prohibit law enforcement agencies from using drones to gather evidence or other information. The bill never received a committee hearing, but it came at about the same time that Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky filibustered for 13 hours on the Senate floor, demanding U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder provide assurances that drones would not be used to target U.S. citizens.

And just last week, news reports circulated that the tiny town of Deer Creek, Colo., is considering an ordinance to issue hunting licenses and offer bounties for people to shoot down drones.

But Melanie Hinton, spokeswoman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said the industry is optimistic that farmers and ranchers eventually will embrace the technology.

“That's one of the reasons we've been working with people at K-State,” Hinton said. "To show people we're talking about small, unmanned systems. These systems are so small, even a differential in paint can affect how they fly. Our job, and the industry's job, is to show how these systems are going to be used.”

According to a recent economic analysis conducted by the Arlington, Va.-based trade association, agribusiness is expected to account for 80 percent of the civilian market for UAS vehicles, with law enforcement and the oil and gas industries accounting for much of the remainder.

In Kansas, that study estimates the UAS industry could create as many as 3,716 new jobs, mainly with aircraft manufacturers, with a total economic impact of $2.9 billion by 2025.

Beating swords into plowshares

Unmanned aircraft systems are just the latest in a long line of technological innovations that have made their way into the commercial market after first being developed for military uses.

Just as World War II produced the Jeep, the Korean War helped give rise to helicopters and Operation Desert Storm popularized the Humvee, drone technology may become one of the lasting legacies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, industry officials say.

“It came at a time when the (Department of Defense) began shifting its thinking from large-army conflict to more rapid response,” AeroVirnment's Gitlin said.

“We first developed what we believe was the first hand-launched UAS in the 1980s for reconnaissance,” he said. “And while we certainly envisioned that DOD and the government would be among the first segments of the market, we also anticipated broad applicability outside government.”

Finding ways to develop those non-military applications is a main focus of research at K-State's Unmanned Aircraft Systems program, which operates at the university's Salina campus.

“There are dozens of specific applications,” said Mark Blanks, who was named to head the program in January. “In general, it's monitoring crop health and determining where there are trouble spots, as well as estimating yields to a higher degree of accuracy.”

“So if you have a large, 100-acre cornfield and there's no way to get out there in the middle of it, and there's no way to get out there in a lot of cases, this unmanned aircraft — with a total cost to the owner of less than $5,000 on the aircraft side — can go out and fly and get a good overview of the field, and that'll let you know if there are any general trouble spots,” Blanks said.

Regulating drones

Before the civilian UAS industry can get off the ground, officials say, the Federal Aviation Administration will have to change regulations that currently ban the use of unmanned aviation systems for commercial use.

Last year, however, Congress passed legislation calling on the FAA to make way for unmanned vehicles in the national airspace by September 2015. The bill also calls on the agency to establish six test sites around the country for testing and development of new vehicles.

Blanks said K-State is a partner with several other entities in an application to become one of those test sites.


nut_case 4 years, 11 months ago

"... this plane carried some of the same surveillance technology that the U.S. military has been employing in its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or “drones,”"

Yeah, I don't think we need more military surveillance in civilian skies. I would much prefer:

Colorado Town Proposes $100 Drone Bounty

LawrenceVeteran 4 years, 11 months ago

Agreed. We already have enough unconstitutional surveillance drones being forced on us. And frankly, what is there to show the people manning these drones can be trusted? It's all fun and games until their filming your daughter in her room. Keep these drones out of our skies.

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 11 months ago

Your daughter has a room in the middle of a corn field? Whoa, that makes me think of the Children of the Corn. Wonder how they would have coped with drones?

Fred Whitehead Jr. 4 years, 11 months ago

Ah, yes, a story blaring from the front page of this Republcian rag to incite the "conservative" electorate. Those people who will see the headline and read no further, due to their natural inclination to "knee jerk" this topic in the direction that the Republican management of this droll news outlet wish.

Further information is provided to encourage the billy-boys and idiots to take pot shots at these useful tools.

Yet another fluff piece to embrace the Kansas Idiot Society to continue to support the current republican "conservative" administration to oppose everything that the Federal Government and the black dude in the White House propose and support.

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 11 months ago

I wouldn't worry, the surveillance technology surveys what ever happens to be below which in this case would be crops. I would think they could be used in search and rescue in remote areas and even in wooded areas where they could use some sort of infrared to detect body heat, of course it would pick up animals also so they would need it sophisticated enough to differentiate large mammals such as humans, and also take pictures to verify. I can see this saving a lot of lives.

Mark Jakubauskas 4 years, 11 months ago

Truth is, there have been high-resolution satellites that can image your house, farm field, back yard, whatever, and the imagery is readily available to anyone. A good analyst can tell what the crop is, whether it's irrigated or not, what the yield is likely to be, where you're hiding those old junkers in the woods, whether you've cleaned your swimming pool recently, whether you've been watering your lawn and if you have a sprinkler head out....the drones just make it a little easier and more under local control.

In_God_we_trust 4 years, 11 months ago

Sounds like an excellent opportunity to stock up on your own air force of drones. Program them to patrol your own skies. Maybe even snoop on the snoopers.

patkindle 4 years, 11 months ago

the tiny town of Deer Creek, Colo., is considering an ordinance to issue hunting licenses and offer bounties for people to shoot down drones. this would be cooler if deer creek would allow something larger than shot guns. of course I thought the idea of delivering fast food to your door via drones would also make good target practice

Curveball 4 years, 11 months ago

Not a good idea to shoot at any drone or aircraft. For one thing, that bullet will come down somewhere and might do damage or injury or even death. You would also be destroying someones's property, or in the case of a small drone, probably belonging to some wiz kid hobbyist. I remember a case years ago when some farmer took a shot at a low flying B52 with a 30-06 and actually hit it. He was caught and did time in Federal prison. The B52s and B47s used to throw out aluminum chaff, then drop to low altitude and elude radar. I used to find the chaff out in the pasture.

Alceste 4 years, 11 months ago

Revenue generating idea for the County: Sell drone hunting permits. Forget the sport of skeet shooting.....there could be drone shooting as noted here: ....just as noted above.....

Colorado is just NOT Kansas.....

Randall Uhrich 4 years, 11 months ago

Say you do locate a "trouble spot" in the middle of a 100-acre corn field, what are you going to do about it? Trample down the existing crop getting to it, and then do what? Not much you can do. Most farmers would just wait until harvest, then chalk it up to bad luck. A lot of expense just to get some bad news. Merely another way to try and get into the farmers' pockets.

Centerville 4 years, 11 months ago

The print version was more entertaining: among the purposes of drone surveillance: "tracking sea lions in remote rocky outcroppings".

Silverhair 4 years, 11 months ago

Not as concerned about government use as by private companies and criminals. These essentially trespass, violate privacy and land ownership rights.

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