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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.

As a continuation of its 2012 Independent Research and Development (IR&D) program, Riverside Research partnered with Parkland College 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 Independent Research & Development (IR&D) project consisted of developing a low-cost UAS research platform for collecting electro-optical sensor data from Parkland College's corn and soybean research plots; developing flight operation procedures in cooperation with the regional Federal Aviation Association (FAA) Flight Standard's District Office (FSDO) to ensure safe and reliable operations; determining the feasibility of applying electro-optical sensors for gathering agronomic data from Parkland College's research plots; and developing processing techniques and algorithms for processing remotely collected data.

Riverside Research employed a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) six-rotor multi-copter as the UAS research chassis.  As safety was of paramount importance to the research team, a detailed static testing protocol was developed to verify platform operation after each modification to the COTS platform.  A second pre-flight protocol was developed and followed for field operations.  Over the course of the research program, the platform was adapted for remote sensing by adding a two-axis stabilization gimbal and employing various methods of vibration reduction.  Integrating a high-speed gimbal effectively overcame roll and pitch variances during data acquisition, providing a consistent view of the ground beneath the UAS. Image quality was dramatically improved by using vibration dampening gel and custom-designed, vibration-reducing motor mounts to significantly reduce the transmission of vibrations from the motors to the sensor.  Through these improvements, the UAS was able to reliably acquire centimeter resolution imagery sufficient to measure stand count on newly emerged corn plants.


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