Use of unmanned aerial vehicles is growing in Idaho

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Besides crop dusting, the assessment, care and management of crops has largely remained on the ground with the farmer.

But researchers at Idaho State University are seeking to change that age-old paradigm by offering growers innovative ways to assess and manage fields from the air, with unmanned aerial systems. The research is one of a growing number of statewide projects to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into commercial and service industries.

“Our new approach to protect important food crops, such as potatoes, is using sophisticated sensors on (unmanned aerial vehicle) flights to gather information allowing us to determine the health of crops,” ISU Project Director Donna Delparte said in a news release. “Remote sensing technologies offer the potential to protect U.S. food security by providing rapid assessments of crop health over large areas.”

Delparte received a $150,000 federal grant to develop “precision agriculture” techniques allowing growers to rapidly detect crop health issues.

The unmanned aerial vehicles — in this case quadcopters — already are being tested on eastern Idaho farms. They fly some 2,400 acres on a weekly basis scanning potato crops with multispectral cameras in near-infrared which can detect crop stresses such as lack of water, nutrient deficiencies and diseases.

“These sensors paint a picture of what’s there,” Advance Aviation Solutions CEO Steve Edgar said. “You can fly over a unfamiliar area and knock out 150 acres in a few minutes … a farmer can put a sensor on the (unmanned aerial vehicle) to tell them if there is a lack or water or what bug is eating their crops … then can adjust fertilizers, pesticide or water to combat stress.”

He said the data gathered helps farmers conserve materials, reduce manpower and decrease operating costs. Traditionally, farmers have to travel to different parts of their fields and perform tests on individual plants to get the same information.

Edgar and his Star-based unmanned aerial systems consulting company — also called ADAVSO — are major proponents of making Idaho a hub for unmanned aerial research and development.

“We want to grow the industry in Idaho,” Edgar said. “We have the airspace, sparsely populated areas, facilities and everything you need to develop aerospace as an industry in Idaho, which can offer very high paying jobs in the future.”

Edgar is working with state researchers on several projects, such as the ISU crop stress research and the aerial mapping of pygmy rabbit habitats near Leadore with the University of Idaho. He also is assisting search and rescue agencies, geological surveys and private companies on the best ways to use unmanned aerial vehicles.

ADAVSO doesn’t manufacture the vehicles, but rather helps customers optimize the various types of aircraft and sensor technologies to meet their needs. “We go to you, see what you require, then I can help create the system needed to solve that problem,” Edgar said.

He clarified this is not drone technology, which involves aircraft pre-programmed with instructions and released. A unmanned aerial system involves a human at the controls at all times directing the flight. ADAVSO operators work as unpaid hobbyists during training flights, because Federal Aviation Administration regulations do not allow for commercial application of vehicles, outside of research and development.

“It’s an area where technology has outpaced regulation — we don’t know how to manage and integrate this into the national airspace,” Edgar said. “Right now anyone can fly these and if you allow them to go without regulation someone is going to get hurt.”

The FAA is making strides toward that goal. Last year, FAA offered funding to establish unmanned aerial systems test sites around the country. Idaho business entities, in cooperation with universities and Idaho National Laboratory, lobbied for the Gem State, but Idaho was not chosen as one of the final six sites.

Despite the loss, Edgar and the Idaho Department of Commerce still are seeking to create a testing site using state and private funds.

“We are very encouraged about the possibilities this industry can bring to Idaho,” Executive Director Jeff Sayer said. “We see it as a technology that will come to a commercial setting … and our strategy is to bring all our (commercial and research) partners together under one umbrella. Idaho stands on the threshold of … creating a leading environment for this research.”

One facility under consideration for the test site is the Center for Advanced Energy Studies in Idaho Falls. The facility has the infrastructure for the research and access to large empty areas at the 890-mile INL desert site.

CAES officials confirmed talks with the Department of Commerce, but said nothing has been decided.

“CAES collaborators have engaged in a dialogue with Idaho’s Department of Commerce to grow the UAS-based research and industry outreach markets. There may be a potential for CAES to be a home for these (unmanned aerial systems) activities as part of the industry outreach and research,” CAES Director Steve Aumeier said in an email.

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