Drones are seemingly everywhere. They fire our imagination and spark our love of technology. Lots of people seem to want one, but few of us know much about them or what they can and cannot do.
In a relatively unexplored but nonetheless expanding commercial market for unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS’s – drones to most of us, research indicates that agriculture could eventually account for 70% of their business use, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural engineer Wayne Woldt.
“Their use in expanding precision agriculture, managing agricultural systems and gathering critical data needed by producers could be limitless and is just now being explored,” the longtime UNL Department of Biological Systems Engineering and School of Natural Resources water resources engineer said.
Working with students and fellow private pilots, including a retired Nebraska Air National Guard fighter pilot, Woldt has assembled a small but dedicated cadre at UNL that are currently using two drones to expand the borders of what is known on how UASs can be used to help agriculture and natural resources, with an initial focus on water management. In addition, Woldt seeks to collaborate with other University of Nebraska faculty to advance a wide array of unmanned aircraft research opportunities.
“There is an immediate need to form a critical mass, and nexus of UAS-based research and development at UNL, to explore and solve fundamental science and engineering challenges of UAS for agricultural and natural resources use, as new regulations are developed. Other universities are working on this as well, but we’re “holding our own” in terms of agricultural applications,” Woldt said.
He and his small but dedicated group fly both a large, fixed wing UAS that resembles a scale glider with a wingspan of 11 feet and an electric motor for extended flight duration of almost two hours, and an eight-motored “octocopter” that would not look out of place in a Star Wars movie.
Both are used to test fly equipment and sensors, many of which are developed and or adapted locally in Woldt’s “Nebraska Unmamed Aircraft Innovation, Research and Education (or NU-AIRE) laboratory on UNL’s East Campus.
“Through NU-AIRE we are providing the leadership to develop research and education efforts around many UAS development needs for their practical use in agriculture and management of water and natural resources,” Woldt said.
These include, but are not limited to:
• Crop and optical sensors for agricultural applications (precision agriculture)
• Sensor technologies for natural resource management (hydrologic observatories)
• Contributions to agricultural resilience under climate variability (enhanced real time data for dynamic management)
• Crop scouting, ranch and livestock management opportunities (cattle tagging and tracking)
• Water management applications for flood assessment and irrigation management
• Soil moisture and vegetation type/index (stage of growth of crop)