It is hard to compare an unmanned aerial system, or UAS, to a magnetic resonance imaging—MRI—machine, but that is how the director of Mississippi State’s Geosystems Research Institute sees it.
“The plant is the patient, the agronomists are the doctors and I am the guy that works on the MRI machine,” Robert Moorhead said.
Unmanned aerial systems are the newest instruments being used in the prescription of precision agriculture, said Moorhead, who also is the Billie J. Ball Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the university’s James Worth Bagley College of Engineering.
Flying above tractors and well below the typical aircraft—a space hotly contested right now—the unmanned aerial equipment has only been approved, to date, for commercial use in a very limited capacity. UAS commercial use was approved in the Arctic late last summer and, most recently, the Motion Picture Association of America was granted a waiver to use the technology on controlled, closed movie sets.
Mississippi State currently holds certificates of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, to operate unmanned aerial systems for research purposes only.
“The certificate of authorization, or COA, for an unmanned aircraft is similar to that of a manned aircraft,” Moorhead said. “Just like you need a certificate of authorization to fly a vintage plane over a football game, you need a certificate of authorization to conduct research in the field with an unmanned aerial system. The FAA needs to know details about the research being conducted including information about the place, the plane and the procedures.”
That means the FAA needs a thorough account of where the research is being conducted, what type of UAS is in operation and how the pilot, albeit on the ground, is equipped to adhere to protocol in the event of an emergency, such as a lost link.
According to Moorhead, authorization is constantly evolving.
“When MSU began flying unmanned aerial systems, more than a dozen certificates of authorization were required to do all the research we wanted to do. That’s headed down to about five,” Moorhead said. “We had to have separate COAs for specific vehicles, places, altitudes and pilot qualifications. Because of our diligence and good standing with the FAA, we are now able to operate with fewer certificates.”
Moorhead says it is important for farmers to understand the capabilities and limitations of the technology, which is still in the research phase.
“These systems aren’t workhorses that can spend 10 hours in the field six days a week and current regulations limit the capital market required to further the technology,” he said. “While the UAS industry is able to utilize technology from other industries like the cell phone industry, UAS technology will only go so far until commercial use is approved.”
In the meantime, Moorhead and his GRI colleagues are working with agronomists from the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station to incorporate the use of unmanned aerial systems in site-specific agricultural research. He said campus scientists are using the aerial equipment in the research of plant growth, nutrient management, irrigation and herbicide application.
As Moorhead explained, the practice of precision agriculture requires a number of other technologies, including GPS (global positioning system), GIS (geographic information systems) and RS (remote sensing). All are designed to collect and analyze site-specific data that then is used to create and apply effective prescriptions for every inch of an agricultural field.
Until now, remote sensing data has been collected through ground instrumentation, fixed-wing aircraft and satellite.
While MSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, or CALS, currently offers a precision agriculture concentration for agricultural engineering majors, the college is planning an interdisciplinary precision agriculture certificate program available next year.
Scott Willard, the college’s associate dean, said students cross-trained in their discipline with a focus on precision agriculture will meet the needs of the agricultural industries adopting precision agriculture.
“These industries need a workforce with expertise in both a focused discipline and precision agriculture systems,” Willard said. “Through this program, students will garner a well-rounded capacity for understanding precision agriculture as it applies to their major and across the entire agricultural landscape.”
Four CALS departments: agricultural and biological engineering; agricultural economics; biochemistry, molecular biology, entomology and plant pathology and plant and soil sciences will partner with the College of Engineering, the Geosystems Research Institute and other MSU entities such as the university’s research and extension centers in the endeavor. Additionally, stakeholders from various industries will contribute their expertise as well.
“We have tremendous support from agricultural industries to develop this precision agriculture and decision analytics focus in addition to enhancing our already successful agricultural engineering degree program and precision agriculture concentration,” said George Hopper, the college’s dean. “Our stakeholders hire the next generation of agricultural leaders, and no doubt students having a good understanding of precision/decision agriculture will be critical in the agricultural workforce of the future.”
Monsanto is one such stakeholder who has gifted a considerable amount to furthering MSU’s precision agriculture curriculum. The partnership between Monsanto and MSU will provide insight on the interactions and relationships of the environment, crop inputs, equipment and data analysis in order to tackle the food security challenges of an expanding global population.
“The Monsanto gift will help us prepare students to become leaders in precision agriculture through the certificate program and eventually a curriculum,” Hopper said. “The gift also funds several annual scholarships which is crucial in attracting the best and brightest to work in the precision agriculture field.”
“UAS is another remote sensing tool available to collect visual and multispectral data,” Moorhead said. “Precision agriculture is data-driven, and this technology adds another significant layer of data for researchers and ultimately crop consultants and producers to assess and utilize in a meaningful way.”
For researchers, the most critical UAS component is its payload, or camera system. Various payloads can collect both visual and multispectral images and real-time high-definition video. Other advantages include:
Wes Burger, associate MAFES director, said precision agriculture “currently encompasses a vast wealth of data-driven applications. These applications are built on sound research that characterizes relationships between observable phenomenon and plant performance.”
Observing that precision agriculture research “is about connecting data to decisions,” Burger said, “The meaningful data within those applications helps drive every decision the farmer makes in the field.”
Burger also said MAFES researchers “hope the data collected with unmanned aerial systems will augment and improve current management practices so farmers can improve yield, productivity and profit while enhancing environmental stewardship.”