By Mikkel Pates – Forum News Service
HILLSBORO, N.D. — What’s believed to be the world’s first test of its type using large unmanned aerial systems for agricultural data gathering in a public-private partnership took place at the Hillsboro Regional Airport.
John Nowatzki, the North Dakota State University agricultural machine systems specialist for the Extension Service, says a May 20 test was the first test of UAS vehicles for agricultural data gathering he’s heard of in the U.S. It is the first in the world, he says.
“We’re flying over large areas,” Nowatzki says, noting the footprint of the study corridor is 40 miles by 4 miles.
The Extension Service preceded the tests with Steele and Traill county public meetings and notices, specifically to address privacy concerns.
The project uses the Hermes 450, a plane that weighs 1,200 pounds and has a 35-foot wingspan. The plane is owned by Elbit Systems of Haifa, Israel. It carries up to 400 pounds of equipment and can scan at 92 mph, using an internal combustion engine.
The project is funded by a Research ND grant through the Department of Commerce, in funds from the North Dakota Legislature. The funds must go through either NDSU or the University of North Dakota, and must include an actual-dollar grant — not just payment-in-kind — from a private entity.
The aircraft has the ability to stay in the area for more than 12 to 15 hours and collect imagery at more than 50,000 acres per hour at 2-inch ground sample size, Nowatzki says. Before this aircraft, small UAS vehicles have been able to collect imagery at only about one square mile per hour.
Big civil test
Jake Stoltz, mission manager with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, based in Grand Forks, N.D., says this is the first time a UAS of this size has operated from a civil airport in civil air space, coexisting with manned aircraft. The FAA in 2013 selected North Dakota as one of six Federal Aviation Administration test sites, and it was responsible for making the complicated arrangements for the flight.
“We hope that doing this operation will give FAA some information on what this even means, to integrate a UAS into an airport environment,” Stoltz says. That could potentially trickle down to the commercial segment.
Trevor Woods, director of operations at Northern Plains UAS Test Site, assisted in getting approval through the Hillsboro Airport Authority for some of the needed runway modifications, as well as Federal Communications Commission approvals for radio frequencies used in the tests.
“A lot of this type of flying has been done by the Department of Defense,” he says. Among the benefits of the larger airplane is the gas-powered engine, which can drive higher-resolution sensors for the more efficient imagery.
The vehicle is followed by a piloted chase plane, which flies an area 40 miles long and 4 miles wide for the testing.
“The goal in America is that we can fly beyond the line-of-site, because from an economic point of view, obviously it doesn’t make sense to have a manned aircraft following the unmanned aircraft,” Woods says. “That’s just for this temporary time.”
The large UAV study compares images collected at different altitudes — looking at 3,000, 5,000 and 8,000 feet. The higher the UAVs go, the larger the area on the ground is covered.
“Even at 8,000 feet, it’ll be at 3-inch pixel size on the ground,” Nowatzki says. “We’ll compare that to imagery from small UAVs collected at 400 feet and to satellite imagery that has half-meter accuracy.”
He adds, “It’s information to help manage crops, whether that’s in-season fertilizer management, insect or weed infestation.” Planes that fly higher can generally collect the images for less cost.
The private partner, Elbit, is looking ahead to establish a private business that would fly over the entire county or state at economic intervals, perhaps every two weeks, to “sell that imagery to companies that could then analyze it and provide information to growers.”nationwide.