Taking Root: Drone Research Into Ag Applications Advancing At NDSU

BISMARCK, N.D. — As tiny sprouts begin peeking through North Dakota soils this spring, it’s very likely some will be monitored from the air as agricultural drone research advances in the state.

Behind much of that effort is North Dakota State University, where researchers have spent years working with drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems, and exploring their potential impact on traditional farming methods.

Last year held many milestones for the school, including the launch of a large-scale project that utilized seven drones and 10 camera models to capture data and determine what it could tell farmers and agronomists.

A 3D rendering of cropland and a shelter belt. Photo courtesy of NDSU.

Sreekala Bajwa, chairwoman of NDSU’s agricultural and biosystems engineering, highlighted that project and others earlier this month during an address at UAS Industry Day in Bismarck.

The star of last year’s major project, the Hermes 450, is a large unmanned aircraft manufactured by Elbit Systems capable of capturing data from 50,000 acres in one hour. During the research project, headquartered near Hillsboro, N.D., pilots flew the Hermes over a 100 square-mile stretch in Traill and Steele counties.  

The drone captured a variety of data that could be used to calculate necessities such as plant counts and storm damage.

“Unfortunately, we had a hail system go through our corridor last year. … You can see exactly where the damage happened and how much was affected by that system with this UAS data,” Bajwa said. “This is good information for insurance companies.”

Researchers also were able to create 3D models of fields and detect level of plant health using the normalized difference vegetation index.

Big drones weren’t the only aircraft advancing research. Small unmanned aircraft saw use at research sites across the state.

NDSU staff succeeded in identifying weed species, mapping herbicide-resistant weeds, detecting and differentiating among three diseases affecting sugar beets and mapping noxious weeds and other invasive plant species.

Data sample showing detection of weed species. Photo courtesy of NDSU.

The focus of some research extended beyond crops to livestock as well. Using data analysis tools, researchers were able to detect and count animals such as cows from aerial imagery.

“There is a lot of interest in the western side of the state from ranchers in where the cows are at and how many cows are there,” Bajwa said. 

Down the road, Bajwa added she expects even more uses for drones in agriculture to come to fruition, including the ability to create yield predictions, track insect and disease movements through crops and spray chemicals on targeted areas of crops using drones.

This story is part of Droning On’s weeklong coverage highlighting presentations made at North Dakota UAS Industry Day held March 23 in Bismarck.