Q&A: BSE’s Brian Luck on UAVs and precision agriculture

Brian_Luck_droneBrian Luck joined CALS as an assistant professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering this past January. His work focuses on precision agriculture. Part of that involves the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—also known as drones. eCALS recently asked Brian a few questions about his work in this area.

How can UAVs aid agriculture?
During the growing season producers spend time or resources scouting crops to identify issues that might impact crop growth or yield. Unmanned aerial vehicles can increase the efficiency of this process by allowing producers to cover a greater area in a shorter amount of time. Utilizing a basic camera or specialized cameras that measure vegetative indices mounted to the UAV, producers can spatially assess the health of the crop in near real-time.

How did you end up with a UAV?
Stakeholder interest in this technology is very high. I have gotten several questions from county agents and have been invited to speak at county meetings about remote sensing and UAS technology. I purchased my UAV to demonstrate how to use the technology from the operational standpoint and to show how easy the machine is to fly. Also, it makes for a great prop and demonstration for an extension presentation.

What kinds of things about the UAV do you explain/point out to stakeholders?
My UAV currently only has a visible light camera (no vegetative index filters) so all I can show is normal video and pictures. These can be useful in identifying pests within the field and general crop surveying. The UAV I have is designed for individuals that are not UAV enthusiasts; you can literally take it out of the box and fly it safely with very little practice or training. I also outline some of the more prominent vegetative indices that can provide more information than the visible light camera alone. The take-home message is that these devices can be very useful in identification of crop needs during the growing season without the need for scouting the entire field on foot.

Can you describe the first UAV research project you imagine doing? How will it help growers?
What I am planning to do with my UAV is retro-fitting it with a vegetative index camera in order to capture visible light images (already installed) as well as other spectral bands (green light, red light, near infrared light). The UAV system I have is a relatively low cost model, so proving that retro-fitting other cameras to tailor the system to producer’s needs is possible is the first step. Once outfitted, I plan to induce stress on a crop (compaction, water stress, nutrient deficiencies, etc.) and detect these stresses with the UAV cameras. This will provide a method for relatively low cost UAV implementation that producers can follow to utilize in their operations.

How will the UAV gather and store/transfer the data for this study?
The UAV captures images and stores them to a SD card on the machine at this time. These images can be downloaded and viewed post flight to assess crop health. The ideal situation would be for these images to be geo-referenced using Global Positioning System (GPS) data and wirelessly transferred to a server during the flight. Once on a server, the images could be stitched together and overlaid with other information such as soil type, soil fertility, past yield data, etc. Utilizing these other data sources with the UAV data could provide great insight as to the needs of the crop. Some more expensive UAV systems have portions of this capability but it is still in development.