Drones will soon be flying over crops, taking images and video recordings to help find places where water, fertilizer or even pesticides are needed.
Larry Silverberg, a professor and associate head & director of undergraduate programs in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has been working on a new research project. The project emphasizes the use of drones to improve agriculture in North Carolina.
The drones will be used to monitor the health of crops from the day crops are planted to the day they are harvested.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are used for a wide variety of applications from surveillance to mapping archaeological sites.
“You monitor the issues related to water, issues related to nutrients and issues related to pesticides to help determine where you need to crop-dust or irrigate,” Silverberg said.
After the drones find an area that requires attention, such as a section that is low on water, only that area will be irrigated, rather than irrigating an entire field and wasting resources.
“You are getting a bird’s eye view and that is extremely valuable in targeted irrigation, targeted pesticides and targeted nutrients,” Silverberg said. “Targeted means you don’t need to put pesticides everywhere, and that saves a lot of money.”
Silverberg is not alone in the project. Gary Roberson from the biological and agricultural department and Scott Ferguson from the mechanical and aerospace department are also working on the drone project.
“Gary Robertson understands agricultural technology and Scott Ferguson focuses on understanding and assessing new technical or engineering markets,” Silverberg said. “My expertise is in the technology of UAV’s and autonomous systems. All of these unmanned vehicles are autonomous.”
Though the research project is not funded, work has already begun.
“What we are doing is that we are studying what specific technologies like platforming, sensing, data management and business opportunities can be facilitated to help agriculture in North Carolina,” Silverberg said.
Unlike drones associated with spying or military, the drones developed at N.C. State will concentrate on helping farmers produce more at a lower cost. However, some concerns exist, and there is already some legislation in the works aimed at restricting drone use.
“Controversy comes in because people are unsure of how this works in other applications,” Silverberg said. “People don’t understand the technology, and we haven’t put in regulations to make sure we do this the right way.”
Silverberg was optimistic about the agricultural application of the drone technology.
“There is no real controversy in agriculture,” Silverberg said. “Consumers want lower costs and farmers want higher yields. This is great for everybody and important for agriculture, and the drones will be over private land, so there is nothing controversial about the agricultural application.”
Daniel Mellinger, an N.C. State alumnus, became one of the main researchers for the most advanced quadrotor drones in the world at Penn State.
“He basically has built the most sophisticated quadrotors in the world,” Silverberg said. “He did undergrad at N.C. State and research at Penn State. He is one of our grads. It’s nice to know that the number one guy in quadrotors is from N.C. State.”
However, despite the usefulness of drones in activities ranging from pizza delivery to crop monitoring, the concerns are real. Just recently, North Carolina placed restrictions on UAV use, limiting it only to state and regional personnel unless approved by the Chief Information Officer for the Department of Transportation.
“Anytime a new technology develops that didn’t exist before, there is going to be a need for the people to adapt to the new technology and that means regulations that did not exist today,” Silverberg said. “The question is which regulations apply here since no one has any experience with the technology.”