Jan 29, 2016
UM students seek growers’ input on drone development

Drone technology is rapidly becoming an added tool for growers to do field surveys and crop analysis. A group of University of Michigan (UM) graduate students received feedback from farmers on a drone technology they are developing as part of a school project they hope to eventually commercialize.UM drone development

UM computer science engineering senior Ivan Ma explained the project to farmers during a demonstration at the Schweitzer Farm near Comstock, Michigan, in October.

“We want this to be really easy to use — it’s a tablet, using iPad-type technology with basically a telemetry unit attached to it that talks to the drone,” Ma said. “All you have to do with this application is a couple of taps, pick where you want to survey and do the mission like that. It’s very easy.

“We’re showing you how to use the tablet, arm the drone and how to take off with a simple mission test,” he said. “You’re looking at a map and selecting where you want the drone to go and sending that mission to the drone so it can take off and eventually do the mission for you.

“It’s a drone to provide to farmers with its main mission to provide a cheap, effective way for farmers to view their crop conditions,” Ma said. “So a farmer will be able to purchase a drone from us very cheap – about $500 – and have this free tablet application that they can use very easily to look at their crop conditions, and have a full- view image of their farm.”

A couple dozen fruit growers gathered to provide input on how the technology would best benefit them.

Grower Nick Schweitzer was interested in canopy management, including the possible use of an infrared camera to analyze how much sunlight was getting to his trees to promote growth, or photosynthesis.

Schweitzer said he owns a small drone for recreational use, but is interested in orchard applications that could pinpoint information on nutrient conditions and other cropping factors.

Jamie Kober of Riveridge Orchards said the operation currently uses drones for some observations, and he told the students it would be helpful if thermometer readings could be conducted by the drone to get a more accurate handle on potential frost conditions in the orchard.

Another application could be surveying insect infestations in orchards, as was suggested by grower Jim Engelsma of Walker. Drones provide an advantage that regular foot traffic approaches may not offer, he said.

The session was put together by Amy Irish-Brown, a tree fruit educator with Michigan State University Extension who said growers had been asking for a closer look at what options drone use might provide to them.

UM students are working to develop a low-cost drone with Pillar Technology, a Brighton, Michigan- based company that specializes in high-tech solutions for agricultural applications.

They brought a lightweight prototype drone they built with four battery-powered motors and a camera that is controlled by a small computer linked to an iPad. For the demonstration, the students restrained the drone with lanyards primarily due to heavy wind conditions.

Their drone can take off and land autonomously and can fly pre- programmed missions without a pilot on the ground, Ma said.

Currently, they are able to chart the path of the drone by tracing the route on a Google map that’s displayed on the program screen, Ma said. The software automatically chooses the points at which the drone will turn and land again.

While their drone could be programmed for long flights over orchards, those flights are currently limited by the battery life, Ma said.

The operating software also can automatically set the altitude of the flight and camera settings. When the mission is complete, Ma said the software can automatically stitch the images together to create a single image of the orchard being surveyed

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which had banned commercial use of drones until recently, is in the process of developing rules for “unmanned aircraft systems.” The FAA wants to register all drones, after recreational drones created dangers at sporting events and around airports.

As of Dec. 21, all owners of remote- controlled aircraft across the country are required to register their drones with FAA. The owner – whether it’s a new purchase or a drone that’s been flying for years – will have to register a name, physical address and email address with FAA.

Existing owners will have to register by Feb. 19, and new buyers will have to register before their first flight.

Gary Pullano, associate editor


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