The Future of UAV's for Agriculture

January 2014

by: Steve Redmond, HDC Precision Ag/Corn Seed Specialist

A recent “60 Minutes” program depicted Amazon’s use of an Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) to deliver small packages to consumer’s houses. This is a very futuristic idea with many logistical and regulatory barriers and may simply be a publicity stunt to bring attention to the incredible growth of Amazon’s business.

In 2013, there were approximately 5 active pilots operating UAV’s in Ontario to demonstrate and understand the real value of this technology in agriculture. This experience has taught us many things about UAV technology. In this article I will explain the important aspects of the technology and dispel some of the myths floating around in the media about the use of this technology.

Transport Canada Permit Process
UAV’s taking flight over a farm field for business purposes requires a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada. There are two basic requirements:

  1. The aircraft (UAV) must be safe.
  2. The pilot must demonstrate competence and the ability to fly the aircraft safely.

A pilot must apply to Transport Canada for an SFOC in advance of the flight. This permit process is currently under review by Transport Canada and will likely become more restrictive to ensure that those operating the aircraft are fully competent, trained and certified.

Pilot Training
There were three systems flown in agriculture in 2013 in Ontario. The Aeryon ScoutTM (made in Waterloo ON) is a quad-copter with four separate motors and propellers while the Swinglet CAM and e-Bee (made by Sensefly in Switzerland) are glider systems.

All systems are sold with a mandatory operational and safety training program. This allows the manufacturers to be confident that the operators will follow Transport Canada’s regulations and protect the integrity and reputation of the systems and the UAV industry in Canada.

GPS Accuracy
All three of the systems are flown autonomously (by the computer) and are equipped with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) with sub-metre accuracy. The trained pilot is required to pre-plan the flight creating a flight pattern of way points or an auto grid over the field maintaining 100-foot setbacks from all roads and buildings. The UAV will take-off, fly the pre-planned flight and return to the Home position when the flight is complete. In 2013, with over 150 flights in ON fields, the greatest drift I experienced from the autonomous take-off-and-landing (Home) position was 5 metres. In the majority of flights the UAV was directed back to within 1 metre of the Home position by the GPS. A pilot, following training procedures and Transport Canada regulations, will have pre-planned a Home position with a 30-metre safety zone to protect buildings, animals and people making any small GPS error insignificant.

Safety to the Public and the Ground Supervisors
Transport Canada limits the maximum height of the UAV flight to an elevation that will not interfere with other aircrafts. In addition, when flying within 10 nautical miles of an airport with a control tower, such as Kitchener-Waterloo or London airports, a NOTAM (Notice-To-Airmen) must be filed with NAVCanada - the agency that controls air traffic in Canada. This procedure requires the pilot to call 12-24 hours before the flight and register a 1 nautical mile safety zone above the field so that other pilots who make flight plans for the same day are aware that there will be activity in the air above the field during a specified time. Transport Canada encourages UAV pilots to become familiar with the VHF radio broadcasting of all aircraft that are departing or approaching uncontrolled airstrips and this becomes the responsibility of the second person on the flight team, the Ground Supervisor. This person is responsible for all aspects of safety, including observers at the field, vehicle traffic approaching the Home position and to monitor the airspace above the field for other aircraft. The UAV must suspend its flight over the field and return to Home until the small aircraft leaves the airspace above the field.

Value to Agriculture
It is exciting to see the commercial value of aerial imagery unfolding as quickly as it is in North American agriculture. There are many research projects underway to develop the “spectral signature” of crop pests and diseases in crops from the multi-spectral images taken from the vegetative (Near-InfaRed) images. Using GPS and auto-steer systems we will be applying insecticides and fungicides to targeted areas of the field at an early stage in the development of the disease or insect life cycle that will dramatically reduce the amount of pesticide used. Imagine the possibilities of applying an effective fungicide to areas where white mould is developing and to stop the disease in its tracks. Even if a second application is required for a tough disease such as white mould, the result will be a large reduction in the amount of pesticide used. This strategy becomes the ultimate in Integrated Pest Management and will have quick public acceptance. There is also value in other uses of the UAV imagery. Farmers and tile drainage contractors are interested in the ability to identify and provide GPS references for tile drainage systems. Crop Insurance adjusters can accurately access crop damage from spray drift on susceptible crops, winter kill of wheat fields or damage from hail or drought.

The future of precision agriculture is very exciting and the term Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) will eventually be referred to as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to correctly identify these highly engineered, safe and valuable tools that will increase profitability for future crop production.