The Unmanned Systems Industry in Support of Precision Agriculture and “Global Challenges”

As our world looks towards “Global Grand Challenges” of the future, we see an ever-present desire to remain responsive across a rapidly expanding landscape of needs.  These needs, in the context of agriculture for example, range the full spectrum of Science and Technology (S&T), Research and Development (R&D), Policy, and the introduction and implementation of traditional and non-traditional technologies into the market place. This spectrum ranges platforms collecting data to farmers actually needing cost affordable technologies that enable day to day operations, enhance data collection and information utilization for real time knowledge management and improved efficiencies in production.

In North America for example, there is significant interest in how unmanned systems will support precision agriculture.  This interest is prominently reflected in the AUVSI Economic Report “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States“, released in March of this year.   As we all know, unmanned systems come in various shapes and sizes and will undoubtedly provide beneficial enabling technologies in support of this critical industry.  As the unmanned systems industry matures, related systems and technologies will aid local users in conducting farming operations and in collecting data that will support these very users in enhancing yield, assessing crop conditions, monitoring environmental considerations, and in efficiently maximizing disciplined use of scare resources.

In looking at unmanned systems and the myriad of platforms available to an expanding global market place,  I think it is important that we pause for just a moment to consider and understand the much broader range of issues that will influence our ability to respond to the significant challenges that lay ahead.

In some respects, we focus far too much on the platforms themselves, for example, as a sole technical means that will be applied to solving the interrelated complexity and operating environments associated with precision agriculture.  In looking at the essence of our bigger “Global Grand Challenges,” we need to continue to champion the international unmanned systems industry and the important role that it will play while enhancing support for the applications that will enable precision agriculture and associated environmental monitoring activities.  We also need to keep in mind that these systems are merely a tool in the kit bag that can and will enable precision agriculture and environmental applications well into the future.

As we look to the future there will be significant demands placed on science, technology and policy.  In addressing these demands we must remain cognizant that the emerging unmanned systems industry will absolutely influence, positively and/or negatively, actions at the local, regional, state, national and international levels in new and exciting ways.  In focusing on precision agriculture, my hope with this thought piece is to expand upon an existing international dialogue that considers the complexities behind the development and use of these systems across traditional and non-traditional applications.  Their use in collecting and gathering data and in providing necessary information that supports knowledge management will  see continued influence  across an interrelated global framework for critical and emerging needs, some yet unforeseen.

Collecting data represents only a small fraction of the potential applications for these systems. Applications cross a multitude of need and pose interesting challenges in providing flexible and affordable solutions that enable providers (i.e. farmers) to enhance their yields, reduce waste, be environmentally sound, support their profitability margins and in the case of agriculture feed an exploding global consumer population.

From a practical standpoint, the world will experience increasing demands to feed a world population projected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050.  In this context, we must pursue better ways to efficiently maximize the use, development and introduction of innovative approaches to technology, information and knowledge management that can enhance what will become a critical need for global food production.   Not critical today but watch what unfolds in the next 37 years.  What will the challenges be?  I would venture water then food production will become major flash points in the future.  In some respects, they already are.  We must assess and work collaboratively to determine efficient ways to address the associated challenges through technology, information and knowledge management and in providing adaptable practical tools and solutions that facilitate responsiveness to need.

This hybrid blend of technology, data and knowledge management will become an increasingly significant asset, crossing multiple domains, and meeting an ever increasing demand to maximize applications for dual use technologies.  Today an environmentalist, tomorrow a farmer, the next day a different industry service provider, and quite possibly the concurrent needs of a weather forecaster and immediately following a first responder amongst a myriad of  other applications.   We must address better ways to enhance multidisciplinary science and technology to meet emerging needs while addressing a wide array of policy related challenges and opportunity.

Data collection, analysis and knowledge management of remotely sensed geospatial information and it’s processing, exploitations and dissemination (PED) are no longer in the sole domain of particular entities, but are becoming increasingly available commodities across a wide user base.  In addressing our future challenges we need to effectively and efficiently implement innovative approaches to data utilization and knowledge management.  Effective collaboration and implementation of solutions will become increasingly important across every common denominator from the macro to the micro within government, industry, academia and a growing international civil market place.

To meet critical future challenges we need to enter into a fundamental dialogue that spans policy, science, and technology considerations.   In this dialogue we need to remain cognizant on ultimate end users of technology and possibly more significant, the ultimate end consumers of related agricultural products.

Issues abound.  How we address them will be fundamental to near, mid and long term challenges.  Water consumption, already a critical natural resource and environmental issue, is projected to see an increase in utilization to meet production needs.  According to an article in Reuters by Alister Doyle found that “The world needs to find the equivalent of the flow of 20 Nile rivers by 2025 to grow enough food to feed a rising population and help avoid conflicts over water scarcity…”  Equally, how we optimize systems to meet the agricultural needs of a growing population will become increasingly important.  In and of itself, the optimization discussion serves as a poignant example of the crossroads of science, technology and policy discussion, debate and deliberation.

Science and Technology will be key enablers in meeting a real need to increase food production necessary to feed a population expected to exceed 8 Billion by 2025, 9 Billion by 2043 and 10 Billion by the end of the century.  As we address our “Grand Challenges” we must not lose site of the reality that enabling science and derived technologies are not sole independent solutions, rather they will cut across an expanding array of traditional and non-traditional approaches and solutions that ultimately meet a much broader collective need.

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[Joel D. Anderson is Development Director at Kansas State University, Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP) and can be reached at jdanderson@ksu.edu. - Ed.]

3 comments

  1. Joel points out some very important elements in his article.

    Far too often UAS/UAV’s promote their platforms or technologies around them rather than the benefits gained from them. Also, some UAS manufactures are so in love with technology they make systems far more complicated and complex than what is needed. For example we had someone call a few months ago to get our thoughts on a technology to use a swarm of multicopter UAV’s to gather data of crops. They were to use swarms to gather the same data that we currently gather from one simple AgEagle flying wing. After some discussion and explaining to the caller just how simple the AgEagle system gathers NDVI images of crops in just a few minutes, the durability of the “Tractor Tough” flying wing, and the simplicity of the launcher, the caller said to me “I was afraid you are right! Who needs a swarm of multicompters when aerial images of crops can be captured faster, better and more cost effectively.” This is just one of several observations I have made recently where sophisticated technology to acquire NDVI aerial agricultural data is more important than the resulting benefits to the end customer. In the agricultural UAS/UAV industry it all comes down to “how will the NDVI images help the farmers increase yields or reduce input costs?”

    It is critical that the platforms be matched to the value of the end product. Some big UAS and even some small UAS companies are promoting $30,000 to $50,000 for a system to acquire NDVI images of crops. Systems like this are far too expensive and too complex for a farmer that simply wants to know where he has problem areas in his field. For this reason at AgEagle we have focused our efforts to supply a complete turnkey, simple and robust system for farmers and agronomists for under $13,000. Not only does AgEagle supply the airframe, autopilot, ground control, photo mosaic, NDVI enhancement software – but also two days of hands on training is included.

    The more we focus on benefitting the user of the technologies and eliminating what is not benefitting the customer, the better off everyone will be.

  2. The economic impact of UAVs when legalized will be much larger than even the AUVSI report suggests. Imagine entire industries being completely replaced nearly overnight that have been around for 50+ years!

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