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Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, AgriLife Research Approved for Drone-Based Plant Health Study

February 13, 2015

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas –Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Texas A&M AgriLife Research have received the state’s first permit to use drones to conduct agricultural research at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Corpus Christi.

Research will begin soon in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), sometimes called drones, that will help growers improve crop quality and yields while reducing production costs, savings that could be passed on to consumers.

“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 Federal Aviation Administration (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 UAV, 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.

A demonstration for the media will be planned in the next few months.

“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, UAVs 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 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 UAVs 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 UAV 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 UAV permit. 

“A second permit would use a roto-copter that operates more like a helicopter to hover and focus in on a particular problem in a field,” Starek said.

Depending on the objective and the particular sensors on a drone, 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 UAVs could also eventually drastically 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 UAV 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.

Dr. Craig Nessler, AgriLife Research Director in College Station, said this new field of research fits well with the organization’s goals of agricultural research.

“AgriLife Research has long been known for setting the scientific bar, which ultimately benefits the grower, consumer, and national food security,” he said. “With this sophisticated technology, our researchers will be able to advance their studies and solve agricultural issues in new ways.”