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Mississippi State's Geosystems Research Insitute and Ag. Extension Team Shares Information about Drone Research Program

July 20, 2017

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"Just getting your boots off the ground really helps give you a different perspective," says MSU's Louis Wasson, with Joby Czarnecki.
Mississippi producers considering the purchase of a drone for their operations are increasingly looking to Louis Wasson for advice.

The Mississippi State University Senior Extension Associate says one of the reasons is "We're not trying to sell anything. We're just doing the research so we can better inform growers in Mississippi and surrounding states."

The current research program is housed within the university's Geosystems Research Institute (GRI). "Back in the 1990s, GRI ( came out of the Remote Sensing Technology Center. We've always been involved deeply in with remote sensing starting out with satellites, moved into aircraft and did a lot of work there in the early 2000s, then moved into smaller satellites."

Now, the effort has "scaled down and is focusing on UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle). That's because of the miniaturization of electronics. These aircraft have turned from, basically, toys into useful tools."

On the evolution of Wasson's research…

"The sensors I used to fly with aboard an airplane were the size of a refrigerator. It took a lot of hardware and power to get it running. Now, that sensor will fit in the palm of your hand and can be flown with these small aircraft.

"The technology has advanced from going with satellites to surgical remote sensing in the field, or construction, search and rescue, so many applications. My main job is precision agriculture, so I'm working with Extension to help promote the technology with our growers.

"Growers are definitely using the technology and I'm glad they are. I'd just caution everyone to make sure and stay legal and understand the airspace they're working in. Even though they're using them in rural areas, aerial applicators are also in that airspace – below 400 feet – and that can sometimes be a safety issue."

How drones are being used by producers…

"Just getting your boots off the ground really helps give you a different perspective. Growers are using drones in rice fields to see how levees are holding up.

"They're wonderful for checking cattle operations to count their herd. Coyotes are a big issue during calving season. Put a thermal sensor on the drones and get FAA permission to fly at night and you can find where coyotes are bedding up and where the threat will come from. Growers also check soybean fields for deer damage, hog damage.  

"In five years, our program will hopefully develop into using much larger aircraft capable of flying at higher altitudes and cover the entire Delta in, say, a day. We need to maintain the precision imagery our growers now need to battle resistant weeds and other issues."

On current research at MSU…

"With soybeans, we're looking at deer damage. We're trying to map out and simulate what deer are doing. Actually, we're not doing many simulations because the deer are very enthusiastic in doing it for us. That's an unexpected benefit since we're able to compare the real-world damage versus the simulation.

"But we're doing research where we defoliate some of the soybeans – maybe 50 percent of the plant tops in a given area. What does that look like? How will the plants recover? What is the breakeven point where you say 'I've got to cut my losses because the plant won't recover.'

"For corn, we're using a thermal sensor to check the stress on the crop in a drought situation. At what point does the corn need to have irrigation turned on? We want to know what that looks like through a thermal sensor.

"To do that we're using 'eye buttons,' which are about the size of a button on your shirt. Those can measure temperature and humidity and those are put on the corn. At the same time, we're flying above the corn – so we're ground-truthing the temperature and also seeing if the thermal sensor is doing a good job from the air. Do those match up?

"We can look at large areas, a few acres, at a time from the air.  

"In cotton, over in the Delta, we're looking at glyphosate-resistant pigweed and how it's impacting the crop.

"With peanuts, we're looking at stresses. In eastern Mississippi, the peanuts have had some issues because it's been so cool and wet. That isn't good for the peanuts but it's good for the research because we're able to get the measurements needed.

"At the MSU research farm, we're also studying simulated inoculation of peanuts. Say the farmer doesn't inoculate the crop properly or leaves the bacteria in the truck for a few days and it gets hot and dies. What does fixing that situation look like from the air with a UAV?"

On questions from farmers considering purchasing a UAV…

"Lots of times they want to know the best analytical or flight plan software. The UAVS and software have gotten so smart and, six months from now, there will be another major upgrade – that's how fast this technology is advancing.

"Again, I'm not trying to sell anything but I'll tell them what works best for our goals.

"They also want to know about stitching of images together to make a nice mosaic image.

"A lot of this comes with apps you download. You find your field, plot it out, load it into the UAV and hit 'go.' The UAV will take off and come back landing at your feet. Then, you load the individual images – sometimes hundreds of them – to the Cloud where they're processed. Then, you can come back and look at things like plant health, plant density. Do I have deer damage? Hog damage?

"There are other processors, real-time monitoring, that I'm excited about. You send this thing into the air and the farmer and scout – who already know the fields better than anyone – can easily see any field problems.

"Real-time is so much better for the farmer who's busy, waking up with 10 things on the schedule. This way he doesn't have to wait for the Cloud and processing to make decisions."

Story by David Bennett
Delta Farm Press