Researchers use drones to gather ‘actionable intelligence’ for farmers

Video: Texas A&M AgriLife

The maiden voyage of the first unmanned aerial system or drone by Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Amarillo was flown over wheat plots just before their harvest in the final week of June.

Brent Auvermann, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center director in Amarillo, said it was the first step into dedicated drone-based AgriLife Research in the High Plains.

Texas A&M AgriLife already has a well-established UAS program, Auvermann said, but much of the work to date has been done through the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi or on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station.

“We needed operational freedom to fly under federal rules,” he said. “We couldn’t rely or wait on someone to come from Corpus Christi to fly here. We needed to be nimble. When we get conditions suitable to fly, we need to be ready to go and sometimes we may only have a couple of hours’ notice.”

Seven individuals from AgriLife Research in Amarillo and Lubbock, as well as one U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service employee at Bushland, went through training and passed a federal exam. That was followed by hands-on training on the Texas A&M University farms near College Station.

In addition, a four-bladed quadcopter and six-bladed hexacopter have been purchased for use in research programs through the AgriLife center in Amarillo, Auvermann said. The quadcopter is equipped with a digital camera and a RedEdge multispectral camera able to capture visible and infrared light bands. The hexacopter will have a hyperspectral camera able to capture visible, infrared and ultraviolet bands of light.

He said there’s a classic distinction on what is done on the College Station campus and what will be done at the Amarillo research center.

“We want to focus on what the producer can do with the information we are gaining,” he said. “On campus, they are looking at things more on the fundamental and developmental levels. You might say we are the test bed. They develop techniques, algorithms and work flows, and then we will streamline and simplify and tailor applications of the technology to what the producer really needs.”

At the AgriLife Research center in Amarillo, Auvermann said some key areas of use for the UAS will be managing crop diseases and water stress, predicting yield potential in crop-breeding programs and even measuring animal health in livestock facilities.

Auvermann said it is more than just about collecting images.

“It’s about extracting what I call actionable intelligence,” he said. “What can we learn from the images that a farmer can use to make adjustments in the field? Maybe they can make a decision to abandon a field where further irrigation would be a waste, or they can add extra inputs when yields are looking better than expected. It might help them decide whether to treat a small section or a whole field if insects or disease are a problem.”

More at Texas A&M AgriLife Research