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Precision Agriculture Will Boost Agribusiness Industry 

fall precision ag

By Rachel Duran

Is your community prepared to support the promises of precision agriculture?

Once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officially establishes guidelines for the commercial use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), agricultural-based uses are projected to increase rapidly. And this growth trajectory will continue for the long term, bolstered by the potential of being a $30 billion market in the next decade.
While the public becomes better acquainted with unmanned systems and what their implementation into the national airspace will mean to privacy and safety, advocates of the systems for commercial applications are unwavering. Safety is the No. 1 concern for the unmanned systems industry in regard to potential uses in commercial and civil sectors, such as search and rescue, maintaining pipelines and monitoring crops.
It is estimated that precision agriculture will see the most activity in the coming years as commercial applications are evaluated and approved for use in the national airspace. In fact, agricultural-related activities are expected to comprise 80 percent of the commercial growth in the use of these systems. The use is focused primarily on two segments of the farm market, remote sensing and precision applications, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. AUVSI, based in Arlington, Va., represents more than 7,000 individual members and more than 600 corporate members from more than 60 allied countries.
According to AUVSI’s Mission Critical May 2014 issue, the use of UAS in agriculture have the potential to create a $3 billion market in the first three years after the FAA opens commercial airspace. The reasons are many, including the ability to farm more efficiently and more effectively with data sets in hand. This fact is driven home when you consider the world will require 70 percent more food production by 2050 to feed an estimated 9.6 billion population.
Precision agriculture isn’t new. Japanese farmers have been using these systems for 20 years. The systems have offered solutions to the challenges they faced in regard to limited land availability, and farming on land that is not easily accessible, such as farms on mountain hillsides. “Japan is on the leading edge of what we can do with precision agriculture, using technology to make the most efficient use of land and resources for ag purposes,” says James Grimsley, associate vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, and the president of the Unmanned Systems Alliance of Oklahoma, a chapter of AUVSI.

According to AUVSI’s Mission Critical May 2014 issue, the use of UAS in agriculture have the potential to create a $3 billion market in the first three years after the FAA opens commercial airspace. The reasons are many, including the ability to farm more efficiently and more effectively with data sets in hand. This fact is driven home when you consider the world will require 70 percent more food production by 2050 to feed an estimated 9.6 billion population.

“They have found the farmer can do what he has to do in a much more efficient and effective way,” says Michael Toscano, president, AUVSI. “The two things UAS bring are very good delivery platforms and situational awareness that allow farmers to make timely decisions. There are a lot of variables a farmer goes through today and this is just another tool that allows the farmer to be more efficient in a cost effective way.”
“Traditionally in agriculture we have been inefficient because we have no knowledge or data to understand soil conditions,” Grimsley says. “We over water because we don’t know what the soil conditions are. We over fertilize — we over do things because we can’t measure what we are doing.”
Grimsley adds that the nation is not producing additional farmland, and if anything, we are encroaching on farmlands with new developments. Precision agriculture is one way to take existing farmlands, and fewer lands and resources to produce more food.
This happens because precision agriculture creates data so farmers understand where to apply fertilizer, and what is the best distribution plan for the seeds. “And as we go along we will be able to predict the crop yield,” Grimsley says. “There is a huge economic impact in being able to understand what we will be able to achieve in terms of yield in a year.”
Unmanned systems are able to scan crops for disease outbreaks, record growth rates and hydration, detect blight and drought, and allow farmers to selectively apply pesticides and nutrients only where needed. The projected outcomes of these activities have the potential to increase crop yields by 15 percent, and reduce the use of fertilizers by 40 percent. “Being able to accurately access, monitor and address these issues is very important,” Grimsley says.
“When guidelines are established within the next year, this technology will move quickly from ‘something that the ag community is curious about’ to ‘something that rapidly becomes another part of their daily operations,’” said Mike Karst, senior partner, Entira Inc. in a public statement this summer. Entira organized the “Delta AgTech Symposium” held in July in Memphis, Tenn., which was also supported by the AUVSI. “Opportunities abound for companies that provide equipment and services for this emerging sector, and that’s why we wanted to bring together as many players as we could to really educate and engage the industry on what’s coming,” Karst said.
And opportunities may kick in sooner than later. Toscano says the FAA is reviewing petitions that request early use or exemptions from the rules as they are today to begin using UAS technologies, particularly in agricultural applications, as well as in the movie industry, and for the monitoring of pipelines.
“For all of the exemptions … it is all about safety,” Toscano says. “The exemptions have to articulate that there is verification of the operator being trained, the platform being airworthy, and that the systems will not cause danger to other platforms in the sky or entities on the ground. For the farming industry, you can articulate what you will use the system for; to monitor the crops.”
Solar Energy Advances Precision Ag
The use of solar panels to power UAS technologies is an emerging trend. Solar has long powered these systems; however, they were limited to specialized vehicles, or were not necessarily practical in terms of carrying a payload.

Another welcome component to UAVs and technologies such as solar cells to power the systems is that they are attractive to young talent. For the few past decades, young talent has been losing interest in the agricultural and aerospace industries, leading to a decline of engineers graduating in these areas.

“The thing about solar is we need solar cells that are not fragile, and that are flexible and follow the contours of the wings,” Grimsley says. He is also the president of Design Intelligence Inc., which is working to commercialize the Eturnas, a long endurance solar unmanned aerial vehicle. The company uses MicroLink Devices’ flexible solar cell, which is in the 30 percent efficiency range “when we start to see where long endurance becomes possible and practical,” Grimsley says.
“There are a lot of exciting things happening with long endurance, including a lot of new battery technologies, chemistries and improved electronics,” Grimsley says. “There are across the board incremental improvements that add utility to the industry.”
Opportunities Pique Young Talent
Another welcome component to UAVs and technologies such as solar cells to power the systems is that they are attractive to young talent. For the few past decades, young talent has been losing interest in the agricultural and aerospace industries, leading to a decline of engineers graduating in these areas. “UAS sparks the interest of younger folks as farming and ag production becomes more high tech,” Grimsley says. “We see a trend in aerospace and agriculture where young people are drawn back in. They relate to the technology, and they are comfortable with it and understand it.”
The increasing interest in working with unmanned systems in agriculture will be critical for precision ag activities, which are expected to be a $30 billion market in the next decade.
For complete details on the organizations featured in this article, visit:

Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International

Delta AgTech Symposium

Design Intelligence Inc. LLC

Entira Inc.

Unmanned Systems Alliance of Oklahoma

Illustration credit:  http://www.sustainableamerica.org/blog/what-is-precision-agriculture/

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About the author: Rachel Duran

Rachel Duran is the editor in chief for Global Corporate Xpansion. Contact her at rduran@latitude3.com.

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