Unmanned Aerial Systems in Agriculture: Part 1 (Systems)

Unmanned Aerial Systems in Agriculture: Part 1 (Systems)

FS194E
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Lav Khot, Assistant Professor, Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, Biological Systems Engineering, Washington State University, Qin Zhang, Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, Biological Systems Engineering, Washington State University, Manoj Karkee, Assistant Professor, Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, Biological Systems Engineering, Washington State University, Sindhuja Sankaran, Assistant Professor, Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, Biological Systems Engineering, Washington State University, Karen Lewis, Extension Regional Specialist, WSU Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center

An unmanned aerial system (UAS) is a remotely controlled vehicle that can fly and maneuver without a person onboard to guide its controls or decide direction or speed of the vehicle. UAS are gaining use in agricultural operations. The size, shape, flight time, control type, and payload capabilities influence the choice of any sUAS for agricultural applications.

This publication describes the types and uses of various small UAS (sUAS), how they may be used in agricultural operations, and some regulations that may affect their use, including FAA guidelines.

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Introduction

A vehicle is classified as an unmanned aerial system (UAS) when there is no person on board to guide controls, or decide direction or speed of the vehicle. UAS are equipped with on-board flight and navigation controls to be piloted remotely or through Global Positioning System (GPS) waypoints in autopilot mode. In general, the shape and size of the system governs classification of UAS into four different types (explained below). Proposed regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) classify a UAS with gross weight of less than 55 lbs (25 kg) as a small UAS (sUAS). Most of the newer sUAS are controlled from ground stations using remote control, multi-channel bidirectional communication systems, which generally use a frequency of 2.4 GHz in the United States. Most systems also have autopilot and auto land capability. From an application standpoint, sUAS, which are the focus of this fact sheet, are integrated with sensing modules on board that appear to have a wide range of applications in agricultural production management when combined with soil, weather, and relevant crop growth information.

Types of Unmanned Aerial Systems

Shape, size, flight time, control type, and payload capabilities influence the selection of sUAS for agricultural applications. The sUAS can be classified into four types: parachute, blimp, rotocopter, and fixed-wing systems. Each type has favorable and unfavorable attributes, depending on application.

Motorized parachutes are easy to fly in no-wind conditions with varied payload, but are challenging to operate under windy conditions. They can be maneuvered at low speeds and offer longer flight time compared with the other three types discussed in this article. However, they cannot hover at a chosen point of interest and need a runway for take-off and landing.

Blimps commonly are used in commercial advertising and may be used in agricultural aerial imaging applications. Blimps can hover in place so it is possible to take clear images of selected areas. However, blimps may be difficult to fly in windy conditions and they are slow to move from one location to another.

The most utilized sUAS are rotocopter and fixed-wing systems (Figures 1 and 2). Rotocopters (also called multi-copter or multi-rotor) have highly flexible flight attributes and use anywhere from a few to many rotary propellers. Often, the name signifies the number of rotors used on the sUAS. For example, quad-, hexa-, and octo-copters respectively signify the use of 4, 6, and 8 rotors. Rotocopters offer several advantages as they can hover at a chosen point of interest for a pre-determined time, use GPS-based waypoint navigation, fly horizontally and vertically, and require very little space for takeoff and landing. The limitations include lower travel speed and shorter flight times, limiting coverage of larger fields.
Figure 1. Rotocopter type sUAS are commonly used in agriculture. (Photo by Lav Khot, WSU.)
Figure 2. Fixed-wing sUAS also are commonly used in agriculture. (Photo by Manoj Karkee, WSU.)

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Copyright 2016 Washington State University

Published March, 2016

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Issued by Washington State University Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in furtherance of the Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914. Extension programs and policies are consistent with federal and state laws and regulations on nondiscrimination regarding race, sex, religion, age, color, creed, and national or ethnic origin; physical, mental, or sensory disability; marital status or sexual orientation; and status as a Vietnam-era or disabled veteran. Evidence of noncompliance may be reported through your local WSU Extension office. Trade names have been used to simplify information; no endorsement is intended.