A closer look at the future of unmanned aircraft - KSFY News - Sioux Falls, SD News, Weather, Sports

A closer look at the future of unmanned aircraft

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It cuts through the air in a matter of seconds. The hum of the rotors akin to a growing swarm, but this drone doesn't sting. Instead it gives pilot Adam Jungemann the opportunity to see the world like never before.

"It's a chance to kind of cut loose and just fly and just be able to see everything! See things from a bird’s eye view, it's just totally different and it's a very freeing kind of feeling that way," said Jungemann.

As a videographer, Adam uses the DJI Phantom drone to give the AJ Production Company a serious height advantage.

"You can pretty much go where ever you typically wouldn't of been able to, that's far as going over a building or over-the-top of water really easily and seamlessly, it wasn't an option really without anything like this," said Jungemann.

Flying the machine is quite a thrill, but our neighbors to the north are taking Adam's hobby to the next level.

"We're going to have a booming and very thriving unmanned aircraft system and we're going to lead the way right here in Grand Forks, North Dakota.” said US Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

The Peace Garden State is just one of six the Federal Aviation Administration has enlisted to test the capabilities of these aircraft and help develop regulations for their use.

"Having the test sites, having them operational, provides a place where a lot of good work can be done and where it can serve as a focus area to really encourage further development," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at a recent trip to the Grand Forks test site.

You've probably heard the term drone used to describe remote controlled aircraft, but it's one that the FAA is hoping to distance itself from. A drone is strictly used for military purposes and intelligence gathering. The term for remote controlled private-use planes and helicopters is an Unmanned Aircraft System. Also know as UAS or UAV, these devices are seen more as a tool, but other than Hollywood, where exactly? From the cotton gin to the combine harvester, innovation has always had a place on the farm helping mankind cultivate the earth. This next tool will rise above it.

"Everybody's predicting that 70-80% of the growth of UAS will be in precision agriculture," said Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Al Palmer who serves as director of the University of North Dakota's Center for UAS Research.

"I think in some cases they may even be autonomous where the aircraft will go out when the weather is right fly the field and then come back when it's done and automatically transfer that data to the farmers desktop computer." said John Nowatzki, an agricultural machine systems specialist at North Dakota State University.

Nowatzki is heading up a collaborative UAS experiment that will mark the first FAA authorized flight for a UAS test site. Using a more traditional plane model UAS fitted with a thermal-imaging camera and two helicopters, the aircraft will monitor crop fields at the NDSU Carrington Extension facility from planting season to harvest. It's a proof of concept test to determine how effective each aircraft is at detecting problems in the field and how feasible it is for farmers.

"Can you pick out the disease symptoms on soybean plant or can you pick out an aphid on this soybean plant?" asked Nowatzki.

"It'll detect the variety of crops, the healthiness of the plant, and the quality of the soil, is it wet? is it dry? Things like that," said Palmer.

It would be hard proof for farmers wanting information on their fields. Given our similar climates, the findings could easily be applied to farmers in South Dakota and throughout the Midwest region. South Dakota Wheat Growers in Aberdeen are just one group that's shown interest in UAS technology, but Precision Ag Manager Brent Wiesenburger says they're being cautious consumers.

"The problem for us is not scalable across our system so we have 2,000,000 acres that we custom apply every year and we would have to have a whole fleet of UAV operators, so that's one of the big challenges that I see with UAVs," said Wiesenburger.

Wiesenburger says the Wheat Growers co-op doesn't want to get caught in a fad and hints they could look even higher; upper level atmosphere high. The co-op can already get yield and soil readings from satellite imaging. Maybe not as specific as UAS, but it's technology that continues to improve as well. One satellite upstart hopes to offer daily hi-res images without the upkeep.

"By 2015 or 2016 these companies are saying that we are going to have high resolution satellite imagery shots of the globe, it would take thousands and thousands maybe even millions of UAVs to do this," Said Wiesenburger.

That being said, Wiesenburger agrees with Nowatzki that there is a place for UAS on the farm especially when crops first emerge. A quick survey could show farmers exactly where their crops are struggling.

"So if I have an area that I can determine with unmanned aircraft that is not worth continuing it's invaluable, you can't get that information from satellite imagery," said Nowatzki.

Whether it's for farm fields or videography, a lot of UAS pilots are like Adam, just flying for the fun of it.

"It's a fun hobby but it can get expensive and when you are attaching a camera and you're going to lift it off the ground several hundred feet and it's kind of like whew let's make this work!" said Jungemann.

While it may take farmers some time getting as comfortable as Adam is at the controls, at least it's not boring. Just like the cotton gin's humble beginnings, the UAS technology is just getting off the ground and its future in agriculture is sky high.

"Things are moving fast agriculture, today looks way different than it did 10 years ago and with technology where it's at, the speed of computers, five years from now is going to look way different than today." said Wiesenburger.

The FAA is still developing regulations for commercial unmanned aircraft systems but individuals are free to fly their aircraft under 400 feet if they keep their distance from airports.

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