Geospatial Technologies Attract Everyone (Part II)

“Geospatial Technologies Attracts Everyone” was intended to be a long article about the “geospatiality of all things” but I’ve opted to break once article into a series, mostly for easier reading, but also to publish more frequently.


Agriculture is All About Location and Data

Another fascinating implementation of UAV technology is evolving in agriculture. Precision agriculture is no longer a bit of farmland fantasy. Most agricultural applications and equipment are married to the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). Everything – every thing – is mapped. Soil moisture and chemistry; field boundaries; the quantities of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides; bushels harvested; even cattle may wear a GPS tag or a simple RFID tag. Databases are maintained. Maps are generated from analysis, interpretation, and then included in local, state, or federal publications.

Sensefly; a GIS integrated UAV by Parrot.

Today, machinery with on-board GPS are still driven by people, by humans. One day, perhaps one day very soon, agricultural machinery will be steered using a combination of GPS, GSM (global system for mobile), and perhaps WIFI. Using forms of possible signals, autonomous agricultural equipment would not need a human driver. On-board mapping software coupled with location hardware will tell equipment where to plant, where to spray herbicide, and where to fertilize. On-board sensors will examine the soil and analyze its chemistry, will scan the crops and analyze for water or insect stress. Much like the report doctors receive when they order blood work on people, commercial farmers will receive reports from the vast array of data resulting from sensor output, digested by software, and reconstituted into charts, maps, and other graphics. (Source: Inside Unmanned Systems)

Unmanned vehicular systems have many application in agriculture. Today, pilots fly aircraft to collect aerial photography and imagery. The photography and imagery are then used for a variety of pursuits. Farmers use the imagery to plan next year’s plantings. The NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service/USDA) uses imagery to help farmers plan. The NRCS uses the imagery to ensure farmers are abiding by their crop plans, to ensure farmers are being honest in their set-aside programs. The NRCS uses the imagery to assist in mapping of soil types. One day soon, human pilots won’t be necessary.

RMAX, by Yamaha

Large expensive drones will be equipped with sensors to capture full-color imagery. Full-color imagery will allow millions of people to manage property and commercial farms. Wildlife managers working for Fish and Wildlife will benefit from being able to assess habitat. Multi-spectral imagery could be collected simultaneously with visible imagery. High resolution multi-spectral imagery would allow for many fascinating scientific pursuits. Vegetation reflects infrared energy much better than it reflects green energy. Sensors capable of measuring slight variations in reflectance of infrared energy can provide data about a variety of vegetation traits, such as water, drought, fungus, mold, or insect stress. What we see with our human eyes is amazing, no doubt, but we simply do not have the sensitivity to other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Thankfully, we can build technology to extend our vision. But, airborne drones are almost passe.

Airborne unmanned systems are like a Stormtrooper’s blaster, crude and not very accurate. A terrestrial unmanned system is like a Jedi’s lightsaber, not as clumsy or as random. Companies are developing GPS-enabled, sensor-equipped terrestrial drones, i.e. vehicles. These UAVs will be able to move among row crops, among trees in orchards, and among grape vines in vineyards. These UAVs will be able to spot check plants, spot spray for disease or insects, or spot spray for weeds. Planting crops will not only be automated by potentially enhanced by watering, fertilizing, and feeding to give the plants a jump-start. Data will be collected, translated into statistics, analyzed, interpreted and mapped.

Several years ago I worked with a local entrepreneur, a farmer who tapped into some venture capital. The capital was designated for the development of a farm-oriented management system based upon GIS principles and data collected from GPS-equipped farm machinery. The farmer was not ahead of his time, per se; another local company had already developed farm management software and had achieved considerable global success, especially overseas in Brazil. (AgConnections) However, he was savvy enough to visualize the potential of WIFI, GPS, GMS, and GIS in the management of farms. Today, the application exists as FarmLogic (website), by TapLogic.

To demonstrate where the UAV technology is heading, you could watch the video below from TapLogic. While watching the video, mentally remove the human from the video. Leave the dog, though.

Everything the fellow in the video does has the potential of being replaced by an UAV, from the mapping of the field, the selection of soil test locations, to the collection of soil samples. The UAV would then return to a garage, turn over the soil samples for analysis, plug itself into a charging stationing, and await further deployment orders.

Agbots being developed by the University of Illinois.

A fellow faculty member related a story about working on an agriculture robot 10+ years ago. He and a few others had received a large grant from a very prominent agriculture company for developing a means to sense disease and water stress in plants. Sensors were developed, placed upon a robotic platform, tests were run. When the agriculture company discovered the use of the robot, funding was eliminated and the project shutdown. Evidently, this company saw the use of robots and the capabilities they offered as a threat. Not to be undone, the fellow and his small group found alternate funding – overseas, in Europe. Companies overseas were far more progressive, saw the potential, and wanted to develop the potential. Today, they are working on a UAV which can not only detect plant stress but treat the cause of the stress. The UAV, according to our conversation, will have the ability to spot treat weeds, spray for insects, spot fertilize, and generally examine overall plant health, row by row, plant by plant. The European ag companies became so interested the U.S. company who initially funded the project, then pulled the plug on the project, caught a whiff and now has renewed interest…more than a decade later.

Since 2007, the American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers (ASABE) has sponsored an annual robotics competition. This year (2015) the ASABE meeting in New Orleans has a new robotics challenge developed by faculty from Texas A&M University. Details can be found at their website. What is evident from European research, and public and private development in the United States, UAVs will be a prominent technology in agriculture in the near future.


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