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Agricultural Applications of Unmanned Aerial Systems

It is estimated that global food production must double from current output in order to meet the demands of a global population projected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050. To meet this demand, the global agriculture industry must significantly increase crop yields and reduce crop loss. Much research is being focused on precision farming as a partial solution to yield enhancement. Precision farming relies on new technologies (including remote sensing) to gather and evaluate data at the field level to support agronomic management decisions throughout the growing season to improve crop yields. Neither satellite sensors nor manned aircraft provide the granularity or responsiveness needed to be effective platforms for agricultural remote sensing. Given the significant advances in technology, sensor-equipped unmanned aerial systems (UAS) could potentially serve as responsive, flexible, and cost-effective platforms for remote sensing to support precision farming and other agricultural applications.

Riverside Research executed an Independent Research and Development (IR&D) project to test the feasibility of using sensor-equipped UAS to address agricultural applications and to examine the logistical, regulatory, and financial requirements of supporting UAS research. The IR&D project consisted of conducting a series of test flights of UAS fitted with electro-optic and long-wave infrared sensors; gathering, formatting, and analyzing the imagery and telemetry data from those flights; determining if the collected data would support management decisions regarding the observed crop; observing and participating in flight procedures conducted under a Certificate of Authorization approved by the Federal Aviation Administration; and sharing the collected data with university agricultural sciences researchers and faculty to identify follow-on research topics.

The overall results of this IR&D project suggest that properly-equipped unmanned aerial systems offer great promise in the agriculture industry. Working with university researchers and agriculture industry partners, Riverside Research identified numerous potential applications of UAS to agriculture. For example, this IR&D project demonstrated that imagery gathered from UAS flights over corn and soybean fields can be used to assess the extent of crop damage resulting from hailstorms. More work and study to develop this and other commercially viable applications identified with our partners is planned.

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