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Event Celebrates First-in-the-world test of ag data collection using a large-scale UAS

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High-level regional officials recently gathered to hear about the status of a first-in-the-world test of agricultural data collection using a large-scale Unmanned Aerial Systems.

In an event Aug. 22 at the Hillsboro (N.D.) Municipal Airport, top officials of Elbit Systems of America said they’d invested almost $2 million in a running project that involves many partners in the state. The project used a Research N.D. grant of $350,000, which Elbit more than matched.

Elbit manufactures the Hermes 450 UAS, which is being used in the project. The plane is flown at various heights, ranging as high as 8,000 feet. Because the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t yet approved drones flying beyond the line of sight, the project has relied on manned chase planes to control the tests, which run through the harvest at the end of the year.

The Hermes 450 drone was available in a static display at the event, which included dozens of people from business, government and research institutions. The craft has flown about 50 hours out of Hillsboro, about two weeks out of every month, scanning at about 92 miles per hour, or more than 40,000 acres in an hour.

Elbit’s worldwide parent company in Israel grosses about $3 billion per year with 12,000 employees and industrial operations in 13 countries — primarily in defense and commercial aviation. It spends about 9 percent of its annual revenues in research and development, which is about twice the typical corporate rate.

Raanan Horowitz, Elbit’s president and CEO, said he thinks the tests will show the technology is a “commercially viable enterprise in which farmers can actually leverage that kind of data to manage their crops more effectively and that’s what we’ll do in the next four or five years.”

The ag project in North Dakota is just part of the “next evolution of technologies,” which includes “unmanned, automation and analytics, decision making and quantum computing” of massive amounts of data, he said. “We’re not trying to predict the future: we’re trying to build the technology base that allows us to come up with these applications.”

There are some challenges to getting commercial licenses developed, and other challenges in developing the algorithms and the way to leverage the data. “On this we’re relying on experts; partners, farmers, universities will help us find ways to leverage the data,” Horowitz said.
FAA’s slow-go

Leanne Collazzo, Elbit’s vice president of commercial aviation, said the FAA has been criticized for being slow in establishing rules for legal drone use, but the agency did come up with a rule for small drones of 55 pounds and less under 400 feet. The agency still must come up with rules for large-scale drones to operate outside of an approved test area, using a Certificate of Authorization, or COA.

The FAA currently requires a chase pilot, and the industry is working with the agency to develop requirements for things such as an anonymous sense-and-avoid technology. The Hermes 450 has more 500,000 flight hours in which it has operated safely and efficiently, but often in countries and areas that are less regulated, and with a smaller general aviation community. The FAA must be proven air-worthy, which includes safety and maintenance, Collazzo says.

“There’s really no standards that have been developed for UAS use because it’s such a new technology,” he said. “How often does it need to be maintained? What should its training records be?”

Sarah Lovas, a farmer with Lovas Farms of Hillsboro, also is a crop consultant with Lovas Consulting and has some land in the project area. She showed an 8 centimeter resolution, which can be produced every seven to 10 days.

“We could do things like manage our in-season nitrogen applications, maybe more precisely than what we’ve been able to do before,” Lovas said. Among other things, it could make on-ground crop consulting much more focused, rather than random.

Further, Lovas talked about how the system can provide surface elevation data that is precise and updated to current times. And in the Red River Valley, where the land is very flat, having data in places where there is less than a foot of drop could be very beneficial data for surface drainage.
Both sides now

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the project underlines the leadership North Dakota and its neighbor, Minnesota, have taken in UAS work nationwide. He noted that North Dakota encompasses a Northern Plains Test Site for this purpose.

Hoeven said he’s working to help persuade the FAA to approve safe, effective beyond-line-of-sight operations for drones in research work, which would make the state the first test site to have such ability. The approval would “mean greater opportunities for our test site companies throughout the (Red River) Valley, to advance the integration of UAS into the national airspace, test many new, valuable uses for UAS and allow the training of hundreds of UAS pilots from around the world.”

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said it’s going to be a “significant challenge” to make rules for operating large, faster drones without chase planes. Peterson said the science is not easy, noting that the Farm Service Agency flies farmland and sometimes misidentifies rock piles as wetlands. He noted that Google Earth maps come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Whatever we do here has got to be cost-effective, got to be affordable,” Peterson said. “That’s the challenge.”

John Nowatzki, an NDSU Extension Service agricultural machine systems specialist, thanked legislators for their wisdom in supporting the project, which he said could only succeed by “keeping our feet on the ground” with practical linkages to plant scientists and farmers.

One of the challenges is to make sure data is properly controlled and protected. Some farmers are concerned about compensation or agreements on what will happen to the data accumulated as drones move into the commercial phase. Some farmers are concerned others will use the information to calculate yields for market price discovery or environmental compliance.

“Who has that right to access that data?” said Brad Thykeson a Portland, N.D., farmer who attended the event. “As a producer and landowner, I want people to respect my private property.” Large commodity marketers could fly the Corn Belt on Sept. 1 and know what the crop would be.

Beyond the agriculture application, Elbit is working with the University of North Dakota on a project with Xcel Energy, to safely, affordably study damage to power lines after a storm.

Story written by Mikkel Pates and published by Forum News Service

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