FVSU employs agricultural drones for research

Drone Stock Photo

Visitors to Fort Valley State University’s campus may notice an unusual machine hovering about, but they do not need to worry.

It is not some secret military experimental aircraft or extraterrestrials scouting our planet for life, but two FVSU professors collecting and evaluating field data.

Dr. Cedric Ogden, an FVSU extension engineer and assistant professor, along with Dr. Archie Williams, head of FVSU’s Department of Engineering Technology in FVSU’s College of Agriculture, Family Sciences and Technology, are looking at ways to employ unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as aerial drones, in research efforts for the university’s Cooperative Extension Program.

The instructors’ interest in UAVs started after attending an agricultural technology conference in Hawkinsville, Ga. Ogden and Williams said they wanted to utilize drones after visiting FVSU’s farm to evaluate its huge fields of plants that include eastern gamma grass, peach trees and Paulownia trees.

One of the fields featured a half-acre plot of switchgrass, a bioenergy crop that grows more than five feet tall. However, due to the height of the grass, a growth problem caused by a lack of drainage could not be seen from ground level.

That is when they decided drones could be helpful in locating areas difficult to reach by foot.

“Aerial observation with a drone made the task of observing and locating the exact position of the problem area rather simple. There is interest in finding a way to conveniently scout areas and get a faster read on potential problems instead of covering every field plot by foot,” Ogden said.

Williams said that using drones is a practical way to survey large tracts of land for agricultural purposes. “From some of my previous work of image processing with agriculture, using a drone was the next logical step beyond using airplanes and Google Map images for agricultural applications,” Williams said.

Ogden added that another advantage of using drones is the practice of precision agriculture. He said this involves using the UAV’s Global Positioning System (GPS), which helps find problems in the field with site-specific information through mapping. It also uses variable rate technology (VRT) where only necessary fertilizer or pesticide amounts are applied to specific locations. The use of these technologies help in improving yields while cutting input costs.

Another precision agriculture method is a processing technology called Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). This uses mapping from images captured by drones to show the degree of crop damage caused by weeds, disease and pests.

“Today’s agriculture is transforming into more of a high-tech enterprise. It’s all about optimization and using modern technology to do things that were somewhat primitive,” Ogden said.

To enhance its footprint as a proponent of UAV use in agriculture, FVSU became a corporate sponsor of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Coastal Plain Chapter. The organization focuses on drone use for several environmental applications, promoting proper use under federal and local regulations and making the information available to the public. Ogden serves as an officer in the chapter.

When it comes to using drones around FVSU’s facilities, Ogden said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has rules and regulations such as maintaining altitudes under 400 feet and keeping a distance of five miles from an airport. The FAA plans to amend its regulations soon and FVSU will comply by applying for any required exemptions and or authorizations.

Following rules are a top priority with the drones in FVSU’s possession. The UAV’s are FCC-certified quadcopters that can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour, capture 12 megapixel images, shoot high resolution 4k video (30 frames per second) and have a range of 1.2 miles from the controller. Ogden and Williams said that for safety, line-of-sight determines the coverage area of flight.

“As long as we can see the drone, that will be our range within that radius,” Williams said. When in use, the drone pilot must be aware of things such as power lines, trees and other obstacles to avoid mishaps.

Ogden and Williams explained that FVSU’s drones serve as platforms for research and extension outreach assistance. They also say the drones are displaying FVSU’s efforts to be a front-runner in applying modern technology to agriculture.

Ogden said plans include training FVSU’s county agents to use drones, within FAA guidelines, to assist local landowners in showing and locating deficiencies in their fields. “Other than a research tool for collecting and processing aerial data, that’s the idea and intent of our drones right now,” Ogden said.

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Contact:

FVSU Agricultural Communications Department
(478) 825-6345