January 27, 2023

Unmanned aircraft flying over farms, forests and nurseries are not an uncommon sight these days. Much research has been done to make drones more economical in agriculture, from taking stock in nurseries to detecting early signs of crop stress.

The research and extension arms of the University of Arkansas’ System Division of Agriculture were among the institutions recently recognized with the National Excellence in Multistate Research Award for drone research and outreach.

The honor was presented by the Experiment Station Section of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities’ Commission on Food, Environment, and Renewable Resources.

The award recognizes research station scientists who conduct “exemplary multi-state research and outreach” for unmanned aircraft system applications in US agriculture and natural resources. Scientists from 23 institutions across the country share the award for their contributions to the project titled “Research and Extension for Applications of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in US Agriculture and Natural Resources.”

The project is supported by the State Agricultural Experiment Stations from the Hatch Multistate Research Fund provided by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

James Robbins, a recently retired horticulture professor and consultant specialist in the Department of Agriculture, was among the authors of agricultural drone research projects that received the award. He has participated in studies measuring the accuracy and efficiency of drone-based childcare inventory systems using RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and cloud-based artificial intelligence software such as IBM Watson Visual Recognition to provide leading indicators for Identify water stress in row crops.

Robbins conducted public relations for the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and conducted research for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station.

Randy Raper, administrative adviser for the multi-state drone research program, said collaboration between researchers across the country has been key in adapting the new technology to agricultural applications. Raper is also Associate Vice President for Facilities at Oklahoma State University and Associate Director of OSU Ag Research.

“One thing we’ve seen with this committee is that we have people who are very knowledgeable in different fields,” Raper said. “We have people who know how to fly the UAVs and then others who are interested in sensors and others who apply the research. Every institution cannot have experts in every field, so collaboration was very important in nurturing this technology.”

He compares the emerging technologies and applications of UAVs to the RTK GPS tractor guidance systems that emerged in the early 2000s and are now mainstream. Satellite imagery would also be used to analyze crop production before UAV systems gave researchers an advantage, he said.

“Satellite imagery can be problematic because of cloud cover, and what we’re looking at is time sensitive,” Raper said. “UAVs and UAS technology give you more control. You can collect the data and quickly decide how to treat it. This of course fits into the management we recognize.”

Numerous researchers working together have enabled the committee to get the technology to where it is today, Raper said. Annual meetings between researchers across the country enabled the exchange of ideas and experiences with the UAVs to open up potential for further applications. For example, he said researchers in the Northwest have been experimenting with using UAVs for spot application of pesticides in orchards. This inspired researchers from other parts of the country to explore related applications in other crops.

Gary Thompson, executive director of the Southern Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors, noted that this multi-state project has a direct impact on agricultural producers in the southern region.

“Management decisions at the landscape level are increasingly dependent on obtaining accurate and reliable data that can be analyzed in real time,” said Thompson. “Remote sensing with drones offers a versatile means to provide agricultural managers with high-resolution information. I am delighted with the work of this research group and congratulate them on this well-deserved recognition.”

Thompson said the association manages this ongoing project, which focuses on challenges in the southern region while being open to participation from institutions across the country.

The multi-state project committee “Research and Extension for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Applications in US Agriculture and Natural Resources” consists of scientists in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

“Over the past five years, this project has evaluated and identified reliable, low-cost, and easy-to-use drone platforms and sensors to monitor and manage stressors in agriculture and natural resources,” noted the Experiment Station Section award. “To maximize the accuracy of the data collected, project members developed hardware, software and detailed protocols for calibrating and using drones. New drone-based strategies are helping to address many different problems in agriculture.”

The Southern Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors represents 15 agricultural research centers at land-grant universities in the southern United States, where scientists work together to conduct research and outreach focused on preserving the region’s natural resources and feeding a sustainable diet growing world population.

To learn more about the Division of Agriculture’s research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uada.edu. Follow the agency on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all of its extension and research programs and services without discrimination.

John Lovett works in the System Division of Agriculture at the University of Arkansas.

photo A photo from the August file shows a drone flying over a corn field. Joint research in many states within the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities has advanced the adoption of drones in agriculture. (Specifically for The Commercial/Fred Miller/University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture)

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