Tuesday, March 31, 2015

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Farmer describes journey to FAA drone licensing

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Posted: Monday, March 30, 2015 12:00 am
Robert Blair has always been a tech junkie.
“My family started this farm in 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers had their first flight. In the life of our farm, we’ve gone from farming with horses to tractors with wheels to tractors that drive themselves. Now we have UAVs or drones,” Blair said.
“Farms are larger, the margins are smaller and the stakes are higher. We’re still after the same things we were after 70 years ago when my grandfather first used a soil testing kit. We’re still looking to improve the soil to get bigger yields. We can do that with technology.”
A fourth-generation farmer from Kendrick, Idaho, Blair manages 1,500 dryland acres of wheat, barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, alfalfa and cows, and he explained his journey into technology during an educational session at the 2015 Commodity Classic, held recently at Phoenix.
Blair, the immediate past president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, and a past chairman of the National Association of Wheat Growers Research and Technology Committee, started using precision agriculture techniques in 2003 using a PDA for simple mapping on his farm situated on the edge of the Palouse region.
Blair’s use, vision and advocacy of these technologies helped him become the Precision Ag Institute’s 2009 International Farmer of the Year. Since that time he received an Eisenhower Fellowship in 2011, taking him to South America for six weeks studying these technologies.
During fall 2012, Blair spent three weeks in Germany on a McCloy Fellowship for agriculture. Back home in Idaho, he was recognized as one of the most influential University of Idaho College of Agriculture and Life Science alumni and in 2013 received the Governor’s Award for Agriculture Technology and Innovation.
His quest for knowledge evolved into use of all different types of equipment, including unmanned air systems beginning in 2006. Today, as a partner in Empire Unmanned, he’s one of a handful of U.S. citizens exempted from the federal ban to use UAS for commercial purposes.
As of January, the Federal Aviation Administration permits Empire Unmanned—a consortium of Blair’s Advanced Aviation Solutions, based in Star, Idaho, and Empire Airlines of Hayden, Idaho—to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, for agricultural purposes.
The company recently received an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly commercially, providing a service to farmers and other agribusinesses.
Under the permitted exemption, the commercial UAV can operate 5 nautical miles away from an airport, at altitudes lower than 400 feet, with the UAV within line of sight, for a half-hour of flight time. The exemption also requires that the UAV operator have a private pilot’s license.
“I got into UAV’s because of my two boys,” Blair said. “I wanted information so they could manage the farm better into the future.
“In the beginning, software didn’t talk with each other. I had to learn and adapt. A lot of times, I had to build. I had to do a lot on my own because support was real great in the Pacific Northwest,” Blair said.
“I had to set goals; what did I want software to do for me and my operation. I knew I needed to cut my costs. There was weather data, yield monitoring, mapping, boom control and on down the line. All of this is important.”
At first, Blair developed yield-monitoring data. His perspective changed when he flew in an airplane and saw his farm from the air for the first time.
“Wow, was that ever the missing puzzle piece. To see your crop during the active growing season from the air. I had driven through a crop, walked it, but did not realize the difference it was from one area to another.”
Blair found an ad for a kit built UAV and bought one.
“I wanted to carry four cameras. One RGB and three modified,” Blair said. “The difference between a UAV and a hobby aircraft is that it can fly autonomously on a programmed flight path. That’s better than satellite. It can fly under the clouds and has higher resolution. It’s not very expensive.”
Newer UAV’s, with gyrocopters, can hover, and zoom in their cameras for closer analysis.
“They don’t have much battery life. They claim 15 minutes of life, you better be back in 10,” Blair said.
The benefits of such data mining can be great, especially for farmers, who are visual creatures who like to see their farms.
“It helps you become proactive, rather than reactive,” Blair said. “Yield monitors are great, but the crop is dead. There is nothing more we can do to affect that yield. We can with a UAV. Monitors verify what the UAV is seeing and with a UAV we can make decisions to affect that yield.”
Blair showed how by viewing near infrared photos shot from a UAV he could help his hired man be more efficient in fertilizer application by showing the large overlap between rows while spraying. He could also see where there was nitrogen insufficiency in the same field.
“I would never have been able to see them if I had just been walking my fields,” Blair said. “The differences aren’t great enough to see from ground level. They need an aerial view.”
Systems are becoming even more capable at examining problem fields. Three-dimensional imaging is able to show problems like prevented planting and drought.
“We can find all kinds of anomalies in a field,” Blair said. “Once we spot it from the air, we can then find the reference spot on the field with a GPS, then get a soil or plant tissue sample to obtain analysis of the problem.”
And yes, if you ever fly a UAV, you will crash it.
“Do not get attached to it,” Blair said. “Styrofoam will protect what’s inside. We had to get a new airframe, but that’s cheap. I could build a system for $500. Imaging systems aren’t where they need to be yet, what we are using is modified color camera. There’s also the risk of radio interference with the signal.
“There also a lack of public understanding about the information. I see lots of people taking pictures with their smartphones and not get one complaint, but attach a camera to a UAV and it’s an issue. The issue isn’t the UAV, it’s what’s being done with it. Governmental regulation, or lack thereof, is another thing.”
Right now, other farmers in other countries use UAVs extensively. Farmers in the U.S., however, cannot independently use UAVs for scouting their fields. The FAA can levy a $10,000 fine for breaking the rules, Blair said.
“There are probably people who are cheating on that rule,” he said. “They can fly as a hobby, but the minute they take pictures and use it for management decisions, they are breaking the law.
“I’ve been skirting the regulations myself, but I’m not going to tell you what to do. I can fly my gardens. I can’t fly my fields. Gosh, I love farming. I enjoy the heck out of it. That’s the grey area.”
Blair then described a litany of FAA regulations, as they try to shoehorn current rules into new ones. Eventually, Blair believes, the FAA will create some sort of permit for private UAV operators. When that will happen is anyone’s guess.
“Farmers are overlooked as being smart people. We’re looked upon as carrying a pitchfork in American Gothic. We need to show this to our new partners that we know technology and can use it well.”
Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or ldreiling@aol.com.

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