Robert's unmanned mission
GroundCover™ Issue: 103 | Author: Emma Leonard
Lobbying the US Federal Aviation Authority and promoting modern farming practices for production and environmental gains are all part of a farming day for Robert Blair
Idaho grower Robert Blair is passionate about agriculture and the potential that technology holds for this industry. As a pioneer in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for remote data collection, he is on a mission to ensure both legislators and platform developers are aware of the potential for this technology in commercial agriculture.
“Agriculture only has limited [remote data] technology available to it because of lack of demand. In the US only about 20 per cent of farmers have adopted any precision technologies,” Robert told the 15th Symposium of Precision Agriculture in Mildura, Victoria.
His mission, therefore, is to encourage greater uptake by spending time sharing his knowledge of and enthusiasm for of precision agriculture (PA).
Robert, who visited Australia with support from the GRDC, annually hosts a PA field day on his farm for both growers and the public. At this event he emphasises both the economic and environmental stewardship benefits that PA technologies provide.
“For me, PA is about using technology to gather information to make better management decisions,” he says.
“My aim is to use PA to reduce costs, increase profit and productivity and reduce impacts on the environment.”
In Robert’s irregular-shaped paddocks with steep slopes (the property is called ‘Three Canyons’) he has found different PA technologies provide him with different cost benefits. Guidance and autosteer give him a cost benefit of between five and 10 per cent, while autoboom control on the seeder and sprayer provides a cost benefit of between five and 15 per cent.
“Autoboom control reduces my stress, enables precise placement and helps me avoid overlap that can damage the crop or cause a negative environmental impact.”
However, at between 20 to 25 per cent it is the cost benefit from variable-rate application that drives his PA goals.
On his 600-hectare property Robert grows winter and spring wheat, barley, lentils field peas and garbanzo beans (chickpeas). With an average winter wheat yield of 6.8 tonnes/ha the land is highly productive, but like all growers Robert is well aware that productivity varies across paddocks.
Having the right data to identify variation is central to managing it. While Robert believes yield monitoring is crucial, it is the use of remote sensing that has really captured his imagination.
“In-crop data is proactive data, it can be used to support decisions that influence the productivity and profitability of the current crop; remote sensing is the most efficient way to collect large areas of in-crop data.”
Remote sensing is the acquisition of information about an object without making physical contact with the object. Data can be gathered by satellites, aircraft and vehicle-mounted sensors. For Robert, the platform he prefers for data gathering is a UAV.
A UAV is a small aircraft able to carry cameras and other small sensors that flies autonomously in a predetermined path. They are battery powered, fly under cloud and can gather data at high resolution at a point in time determined by the user.
The downside of this platform, both in the US and Australia, is that there are no specific regulations for UAVs. This means they come under the same aviation regulations as passenger-carrying aircraft.
“In the US there has been much discussion about the role of UAVs and their negative uses – for spying and attacking, for example – because the military are the main users of UAVs. My focus is the positive uses for agriculture.”
Robert is actively involved in the development of US legislation for UAVs and was the first person to file a petition with the US Federal Aviation Authority regarding their commercial use.
While the rules and regulations are still in development, so are the UAV platforms.
Robert has built fixed-wing UAVs fitted with colour and near-infra-red cameras. He has also built a UAV driven by four rotors, which is easier to fly than a helicopter and more stable. It also has improved zoom capabilities and can be flown lower over crops.
He admits he has crashed a few UAVs but that is all part of the learning process. With each crash he is finding materials more suited to UAVs for use in agriculture.
Robert is pleased with the imagery he has gathered using his UAVs. With this he has visually demonstrated in-crop nutrient variation, that areas of concentrated manure around cattle feed troughs are not leaching, and that the variation in yield is due to different tillage practices.
So far, it has been with insurance claims that the data has really paid. His aerial images were used to calculate the area of crop damaged by waterlogging and the proportion of crop lost due to grazing by wild elk and deer. The latter issue is covered through levies on hunting licences.
By 2015, the US Federal Aviation Authority should have established regulations for the commercial use of UAVs. Robert will continue to lobby to ensure these regulations are positive for agriculture and continue his mission to promote modern farming practices for production and environmental gains.
Robert Blair, Idaho, US,