Project features use of aerial drones to monitor crops

BATAVIA -- An aerial drone will debut over Western New York farms as part of a Cornell Cooperative Extension research project.

The Extension's Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops team will use the drone -- also known as an Unmanned Aerial System -- to monitor field crops in its 10-county region.

The area includes Genesee, Orleans, Wyoming and Livingston counties. Preliminary flights are expected to start this fall, with intensive field evaluations during the 2015 crop season.

"The plan is to basically have it flown over fields in all counties we serve in Cornell Cooperative Extension," said Bill Verbeten, a team agronomist.

The team is collaborating with area farmers, along with agricultural consulting companies, Cornell University faculty, and industry representatives on the project.

The goals are to evaluate the drone's ability to perform crop monitoring; and enhance on-farm research efforts using the aerial imagery it gathers.

Verbeten said evaluations will be rigorous, unbiased, and data-driven.

"We've got the growing season in spring next year, so that's going to be really the major time of flying, but we will get some preliminary data this fall," he said.

The team's particular drone is a called a PrecisionHawk. It's a very small aircraft, weighing three pounds, with a four-feet wingspan.

The drone will take off and land in farmers' fields. Besides evaluating the unit's crop work potential, Verbeten said the operations will help develop flight rules for future commercial use.

"It's not like anybody can just buy a drone and just start using it willy-nilly," he said. "We need to integrate it into U.S. airspace."

The flights will adhere to strict Federal Aviation Administration protocols and permissions, Verbeten said. Although the drone basically flies on autopilot, it must be monitored by two people, including an FAA-certified pilot-in-command, and a visual observer.

The FAA is allowing the drone to operate below 400 feet altitude.

"Part of what the testing site is doing, is trying to find ways to integrate these operations into the airspace," Verbeten said. "There's a lot of things we need to do. We'll be communicating with the traffic controllers at the local airports that are within a certain distance of our flight, so the pilots in our area will know where we are. We need to be very purposeful in planning ahead, in how we do the operations."

It will probably be several years before commercial rules are established and "real world" operations begin -- if the technology proves useful.

"Sometimes there's a lot of excitement, as it should be," Verbeten said. "We just don't know yet. We will, but it just takes time. We need to do this multiple years, at multiple locations, to make sure."

He said it could realistically be three to five years before commercial drone companies start establishing themselves, or agricultural businesses start offering services. It's a complex and highly-regulated process which people can't start on a whim.

"It's going to take awhile and we're excited to start the process, but it's going to be awhile before it's available for commercial operations," Verbeten said. " We're just excited to get the work started."

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