What if there were a tool on your farm or ranch that would enable you to quickly and precisely measure the amount and type of biomass on your pasture or rangeland? With aerial photos from a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a producer will be able to do just that.

UAVs may soon be used in a variety of ag applications, says Kevin Price, Kansas State University agronomist. He and Deon van der Merwe, a KSU toxicologist, have logged dozens of years of experience in remote sensing, geographic information and flying unmanned aircraft systems.

“The feedlot industry is very interested in this technology,” says Price. “If a feedlot has miles of bunks and tens of thousands of cattle, a UAV would be useful in monitoring feed intake. We can even use cameras to measure the temperature of cattle on feed.

“Two types of UAVs are commonly used,” he adds. “One is a fixed-wing version, which is similar to a radio-controlled airplane. The other is the multirotor that uses four or six props to fly. The fixed-wing UAV can cover more ground faster than the multirotor, but requires a greater amount of training to fly.”

The aircrafts vary in price. A hobbyist-level multirotor can be bought for under $1,000, while a military-level multirotor can cost more than $150,000. For a fixed-wing aircraft, a minimum of $2,000 normally will buy the parts for those wishing to assemble the aircraft. It could take 60 to 100 hours of assembly and testing to get the aircraft in flying condition.

Many of the systems can be equipped with components for autonomous flight, including GPS, gyros, accelerometers and magnetometers. With the right system, the aircraft can be flown with amazing precision in terms of desired altitude and ground coverage, Price points out.

“Applications of this emerging technology have not been scratched yet,” says Price. “By the year 2025, UAVs have the potential to be an
$82 billion industry with about 80% of their uses in agriculture.

“In the future, we could see farmers and ranchers using the UAVs on their own or hiring consultants to do this type of work. They will be able to monitor their land in ways they have never been able to do before.”

To precisely interpret images from UAVs and other high-altitude sources, such as satellites, KSU scientists and the private sector are working to develop software called AgPixel. A company called RoboFlight will provide image processing and analysis services.

“The UAVs give us some interesting images, but how we interpret these images is the most important aspect of our work,” says Price. “The AgPixel software allows us to measure biomass over the area that the UAV has flown and also identify the different species of plants growing on rangeland. When you are dealing with thousands of acres of rangeland, this can be helpful in determining how to stock these areas.”

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“We just began working with the UAVs to get biomass estimates of rangeland,” says Kristin Hase, chief of natural resources at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, KS. Nearly 11,000 acres of the preserve’s range are leased to ranchers for grazing cattle.

“The analysis of maps being produced from the flights of UAVs is very comparable to the estimates that we have been gathering on the ground. We can use the information to adjust stocking rates and duration of grazing on an annual basis. The better the data, the better decisions you can make for grazing allocation. This is just one more tool for ranchers to use in management decisions.”

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