Pilotless Aircraft Will Play Critical Roles in Precision Agriculture

(Photo by MSU Ag Communications/Kat Lawrence) Lee Hathcock, a coordinator with the Mississippi State University Geosystems Research Institute, prepared to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle July 17, 2014 at the MSU Black Belt Experiment Station in Brooksville, Mississippi.

(Photo by MSU Ag Communications/Kat Lawrence)
Lee Hathcock, a coordinator with the Mississippi State University Geosystems Research Institute, prepared to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle July 17, 2014 at the MSU Black Belt Experiment Station in Brooksville, Mississippi.

Comparing an unmanned aerial vehicle to a magnetic resonance imaging machine may seem odd, but that is how the director of the Mississippi State University Geosystems Research Institute sees it

“The plant is the patient, the agronomists are the doctors, and I am the guy who works on the MRI machine,” said Robert Moorhead, GRI director and Billie J. Ball Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the MSU Bagley College of Engineering.

UAVs — flying above tractors but well below manned aircraft — are the newest instruments used in precision agriculture. Mississippi State holds certificates of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate UAVs for research purposes, and Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station scientists have been using the remotely piloted aircraft in various studies.

FAA officials are developing regulations for the commercial use of UAVs, and Congress has set a September 2015 deadline for the agency to establish rules specifically for small, unmanned aerial systems. So far, the aerial equipment has been approved for commercial use only in a very limited capacity.

In the meantime, Moorhead and his GRI colleagues are working with MAFES agronomists and MSU Extension Service specialists to incorporate the use of UAVs in site-specific agricultural research. Moorhead said scientists are using the aerial equipment in research related to irrigation, plant growth, nutrient management and herbicide application.

Precision agriculture requires a number of other technologies, including remote sensing, global positioning systems and geographic information systems, Moorhead explained. These technologies are designed to collect and analyze site-specific data that can be used to create and apply effective prescriptions for every inch of an agricultural field.

Before the advent of unmanned aircraft, remote-sensing data had to be collected with satellites, ground instrumentation and piloted aircraft.

“UAVs now are another remote-sensing tool available to collect visual and multispectral data,” Moorhead said. “Precision agriculture is data driven, and UAV technology adds another significant layer of data for researchers and, ultimately, crop consultants and producers to assess and utilize in a meaningful way.”

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