Producers are finding out just how much Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) can be used in agriculture.

Many have small UAVs that can still take powerful photos, showing them if they may have certain weeds or diseases in their fields.

But at Sidney USDA-ARS and Montana State University Eastern Ag Research Center (EARC) dryland field days, Chengci Chen, MSU EARC cropping systems agronomist and superintendent, is using a large UAV to help him collect the same amount of crop data he used to do with a hand-held GreenSeeker and other devices.

“We are supporting breeders by testing durum, spring wheat, barley and winter wheat material under dryland and irrigation environments,” Chen said.

Chen is collaborating with Gautam Pradhan, NDSU Williston Research Extension Center (WREC), and Phil Bruckner, MSU professor and winter wheat breeder, on the joint project.

These scientists want to find out which varieties perform better under dryland and which varieties perform better under irrigation.

In addition, scientists will be comparing dryland and irrigated spring wheat protein content for each variety.

“Ideally, varieties would perform well under irrigation and dryland. That would be a perfect variety,” Chen said. “More likely, varieties will have certain traits, such as drought tolerance, and would do better in a drier environment, or have other traits for other environments.”

Pradhan brought the UAV and flew it over the fields to collect data with the images from the attached infrared camera. He brought two assistants from WREC.

“If you are flying a UAV, you need an observer,” he said. “We have been collaborating for more than two years. We’re developing technology that will increase the yield of crops, as well as the income of Montana and North Dakota producers with minimum adverse effects on the environment.”

Hand-held devices can collect the data, but it takes hours, while the UAV can collect the same data in 20-30 minutes.

“If you took a hand-held device and did this field’s calculations to find out yield and protein, it would take a long, long time,” Chen said. “With a UAV that has a broad spectral camera, we can fly it through the crops and take the temperature immediately.”

The UAV is a high-tech device, and scientists are finding out more and more uses for it in agriculture and crops.

“We need a fast device to gather this data. That is why we are using UAVs,” Pradhank said.

The remote sensing imaging technology on the multispectral camera uses green, red, red-edge and near infrared wavebands to capture both visible and invisible images of crops and vegetation.

These photo images can be used with specialized agriculture software, which output the information into meaningful data about crops.

“The total weight of the UAV is less than 55 pounds, or you can’t fly it under the regulations,” he added. “The UAV will take pictures as quick as you want if you ask it to.”

The fields were divided into quadrants, with red crossed lines indicating average dryland protein and irrigated protein, and orange crossed lines indicating average dryland yield and irrigated yield.

For variety trials, scientists check plant canopy traits that relate closely to the crop’s physiology, growth, and yield, to develop higher-yielding, more drought tolerant and winter-hardy barley, spring wheat, durum and winter wheat varieties.

Some of the crop work that UAVs are doing in agriculture include: finding the best seeding rates; inoculation and nitrogen applications on crops; seed treatment and disease management, information on new varieties of crops; as well as weed control and disease research, among other uses.

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