CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Texas A&M AgriLife Research have received the state’s first permit to use remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) to conduct agricultural research.
Research will begin soon in the use of RPAs that will help growers improve crop quality and yields while reducing production costs, savings that could be passed on to consumers, according to university officials.
“This represents another excellent opportunity for us to continue conducting cutting-edge agricultural research,” said Dr. Juan Landivar, AgriLife Research’s Corpus Christi Center Director. “After submitting an application and undergoing an extensive review process by the FAA, we were issued a permit to conduct research in flight operations for precision agriculture. This technology will eventually improve agriculture and could bring an entirely new drone-based, multi-million dollar industry to Texas.”
Also involved in the research is the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, College Station.
The first test flight of the RPA, a fixed-wing lightweight platform called a Sensefly eBee, will take flight within days, according to Dr. Michael Starek, assistant professor of Geographic Information Science and Geospatial Surveying Engineering at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
“This technology has huge potential,” Starek said. “Such systems can be equipped with specialized cameras to precisely map where crops are stressed, assess moisture conditions, image 3-D plant structure, detect pest infiltration, and potentially determine early on where crops are diseased. Compared to traditional aircraft or satellites, (RPAs) provide the capability to scout crops at a fraction of the cost and at spatial and temporal scales previously unattainable.”
Current FAA regulations prohibit flying unmanned aircraft systems for commercial purposes. A few companies have received waivers or permits. The permit that A&M-Corpus Christi and AgriLife Research received is specific to their role as a state agencies, and does not pertain to commercial uses.
The FAA is currently working to establish guidelines for safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.
The technology for growers is already here, Starek said. But challenges still remain in how to effectively operate these systems and process data that is easily useable for the end users.
“I see small-scale (RPAs) becoming an integral tool for growers, big and small, enabling them to target their needs to better manage crops,” said Starek. “It’s relatively inexpensive, capable, and a technology that is rapidly evolving. Eventually these platforms will perform all kinds of applications beyond crop scouting, such as precisely watering or distributing insecticide. The possibilities and potential are impressive.”
Starek said the current flight permit has very strict guidelines about how, when, and where the fixed-wing RPA can be used. Initial operations will include conducting baseline surveys of crop fields at the AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Corpus Christi.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and AgriLife Research are in the process of applying for another agricultural permit, which would use a roto-copter that operates more like a helicopter to hover and focus in on a particular problem in a field, according to Starek.
Depending on the objective and the particular sensors on an RPA, an entire field crop can be surveyed in less than 30 minutes, Landivar said. The data could then be plugged in to a “smart” tractor via a computer jump drive. The tractor would proceed through the field, responding to plants’ needs based on a data map showing the tractor where to apply herbicides, insecticides, water, growth hormone regulators or whatever the crop needs.
“That’s precision agriculture,” he said. “It would apply only what’s needed where it’s needed. It will make for a higher-quality, higher-yielding crop, saving the grower time and money.”
Landivar said RPAs could also eventually reduce the amount of time a plant breeder spends in the field evaluating new varieties.
“This technology could help in phenotyping, or evaluating the thousands of prodigy lines that now must be done by hand, plant by plant,” he said. “With the proper sensors on the platform, the (RPA) could do in very short order what normally can take up to several weeks, depending on the size of the study.”
A new, technology-based industry for the state could result from the preliminary work now being done, he said.
“In addition to aiding in the production of crops, other uses for this technology include the management of water, minerals, livestock, and wildlife,” Landivar said.