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Agricultural UAS research expanding across state

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Unmanned aircraft will soon be buzzing overhead at several agricultural research centers around North Dakota.

North Dakota State University received approval Friday to expand its unmanned aircraft systems research program from the University of North Dakota UAS Research and Compliance Committee, a group that vets research proposals.

Last year, the committee approved the use of unmanned aircraft at the university's Carrington research center. The expansion will bring UAS research projects to NDSU Extension Service research sites near the cities of Williston, Dickinson, Langdon, Minot and on private farms in Kidder and Golden Valley counties.

"We're expanding for a number of reasons, but one reason is this was really a pretty attractive thing to the research center at Carrington," said John Nowatzki, NDSU professor and the project's principal investigator. "So the other extension directors asked if they could be a part of this."

The research will be conducted in collaboration with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, one of six unmanned aircraft test sites focused on research in the country.

Two other research centers in North Dakota, near Streeter and Hettinger, expressed interest in the project but are not located within an approved flight area designated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The rest of the locations fall into an area covered by a certificate of authorization or waiver, which stipulates conditions under which the unmanned aircraft can fly.

Various projects

Each research site will focus on one or more research projects aiming to investigate several objectives.

These objectives include determining how UAS could enhance livestock and crop production along with agricultural services and how the energy industry is impacting crops and livestock, according to an application submitted to the UASRCC.

"At each of these research stations—particularly Carrington—there are several different projects going on, and we work with a lot of different researchers," Nowatzki said.

The research site near Williston will research potential uses regarding irrigation, while the Langdon site would use UAS to see if sensors can detect club root, a disease affecting crops such as canola.

In Minot, researchers will be attempting to gauge winter wheat survival rates using the devices. At the Manning Ranch unit near the Dickinson site—where two oil wells have been drilled within the past year—staff will study the impact of energy production on livestock and crops.

Current research

While projects are starting up at the new sites, several research ventures have been successful at the original Carrington research center.

Researchers have been able to use sensors and data collected by them to detect nitrogen deficiencies in corn and identify weeds in crops.

They weren't able to determine whether animals were sick or ovulating by differences in temperature, but Nowatzki said a new sensor could solve that problem.

The livestock seem unfazed by the presence of unmanned aircraft, UAS pilot Jakee Stoltz said, adding they just look up at the object flying overhead.

In addition to finding sick animals and counting animals, Nowatzki said there is a potential that UAS could be used to find specific animals by reading electronic signals from ear tags.

Imagery taken by the aircraft is only supposed to be collected within the research area as the device's camera turns off when it passes outside of that boundary, Stoltz said.

Data collected from the unmanned aircraft is transferred to a computer the day of flight and eventually stored on a secure server at NDSU.

This story originally written by Brandi Jewet of Forum Communications and published by Prairie Business Magazine. Read the original published story at: http://www.prairiebizmag.com/event/article/id/23718/group/Agriculture/#s...

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