Texas A&M AgriLife Gives the Lowdown on its Extensive UAS Research

A contingent of Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientists, part of a cross-disciplined unmanned aircraft (UAS) systems research team, recently gave briefings in College Station on project results conducted across Texas.

The AgriLife UAS program is one of the largest research programs of its kind in the U.S., according to administrators. The team uses both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft on row crop and rangeland spanning from Weslaco, Beaumont, Corpus Christi and College Station to Amarillo.

Program areas focus on flight operations, data analysis, management and dissemination, as well as plant phenotyping, precision agriculture and animal and pasture.

“We have everyone from crop breeders, soil scientists and agricultural engineers to computational specialists all focused on developing diagnostics to provide the status of crop health and ultimately improve overall yields,” said Dr. Bill McCutchen, executive associate director of AgriLife Research at College Station.

The recent meeting was an update on work conducted in 2016. According to Texas A&M Agrilife, there was optimism among scientists at the meeting; in addition, excitement is continuing to build on what lies ahead for UAS.

“This is no different than molecular marker technology 20 years ago,” said Dr. Bill Rooney, an AgriLife Research faculty fellow and sorghum breeder at College Station. “Ground truth measurements may not always be right.”

Dr. Alex Thomasson, an AgriLife Research biological and agricultural engineer at College Station, provided an overview of equipment and sensors being used in the program.

“Fixed-winged aircraft fly higher, longer and faster,” Thomasson said. “They are especially good for crop fields.” He said the rotary TurboAce X88 octocopter is also being used in experiments and has the ability to capture quality images.

“It can fly slow and really get detailed, high-quality images,” he explained. “It can work in multiple crops and measure plant height.”

Thomasson said the goals of his team are to provide next-day data to field research teams. In 2016, 289 flights were recorded.

Dr. Juan Landivar, director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi, said the team made the transition from using tractors to UAS for data collection at the end of 2015. The UAS research at the Corpus Christi center involves sorghum, cotton, vegetables, corn and cattle.

Other members of the project team, including Jinha Jung, AgriLife Research scientist, also gave updates. Jung gave a demonstration on an online research collaboration portal for UAS data. He is also working with Landivar to transfer data to another simulation model for comprehensive analysis.

Dr. Murilo Maeda, an AgriLife Research scientist at Corpus Christi, is using crop simulation data to evaluate breeding lines in the field. He said the technology has “incredible potential for plant breeders” in developing lines that can adapt to Texas’ ever-changing climatic conditions during the growing season.

Automating data-gathering and replacing humans who walk row after row performing numerous measurements on crop plants has much appeal, says the university.

This article is adapted from an article by Blair Fannin of Texas A&M AgriLife Research. Photo also courtesy of Fannin.


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