Bend Companies partner to use UAV’s to study potatoes

Remote-controlled vehicles to be used in research around Hermiston

By Tim Doran / The Bulletin

Published: April 11. 2013 4:00AM PST

Operators will soon begin flying remote-controlled aircraft over potato fields around Hermiston, taking pictures of the plants as part of a research effort to help farmers better manage their crops.

The project, which involves Oregon State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Boeing and a Bend startup called Paradigm, has launched at a time when interest in unmanned aircraft has taken off around the state and nation.

The two aircraft, weighing 6 and 8 pounds, respectively, will photograph the fields using various cameras, some of which can zoom in on a leaf, according to an OSU news release. Researchers from OSU and the USDA expect the images to serve as a type of early-warning system that will detect problems with the plants.

“The key is to pick up plants that are just beginning to show stress so you can find a solution quickly,” Phil Hamm, director of the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, said in the news release.

The aircraft will fly several times per week throughout the season over about 50 acres at the research center and over about 1,000 acres at a private farm west of Boardman, Hamm said.

Potatoes became the focus because the crop must be carefully managed and it’s expensive to raise, Don Horneck, an agronomist with the OSU Extension Service, said in the news release.

In dollar value, it ranked as the state’s top vegetable in 2011 and seventh highest agricultural commodity overall, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture statistics.

The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized the flights. The aircraft are not allowed to fly higher than 400 feet and must stay within sight of the operator, typically less than a mile away.

That’s where Paradigm comes in. A subsidiary of the Bend company n-Link, Paradigm obtains the FAA approval, identifies the aircraft and supplies the operators to help researchers and others obtain the information they need, said David Blair, the company’s director of government and public relations.

While some have raised concerns about unmanned aerial systems violating privacy, the research over the potato fields continues the 102-year efforts of the Hermiston research station: to help farmers grow crops, Hamm said.

“These unmanned aircraft are for agricultural research only and will be used to do nothing more than that,” he said in the news release.

SPUDMAN     OSU to use unmanned aircraft for potato research

Oregon State University (OSU) will incorporate two small, remote-controlled aircraft equipped with cameras to photograph potato fields. Researchers hope that the resulting data will provide insights to more efficient use of water, fertilizers and pesticides, leading to improved yields and cutting input costs.

The two planes will fly over a 50-acre plot at OSU’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center (HAREC), as well as several crop circles totaling about 1,000 acres at a research cooperative farm west of Boardman, Ore. The flights will take place three times a week until fall harvest.

Don Hornek, OSU Extension Service agronomist, is the lead researcher on the project. Ray Hunt, a plant physiologist with the USDA-ARS in Beltsville, Md., will collaborate with Hornek on the data analysis.

The aircraft will use various cameras to photograph the potato plants, including cameras that detect different wavelengths of light including infrared. Plants reflect infrared light but unhealthy plants reflect less infrared light and appear darker in photographs. Researchers will explore using other light wavelengths to determine which ones are more helpful in identifying stressed plants.

The cameras are capable of zooming in on a leaf and detecting plants that are not getting enough fertilizer and water. Researchers will purposely reduce irrigation and fertilizer on specific areas of the test plots to determine how quickly, if at all, the equipment detects the stressed conditions of the plants.

“The key is to pick up plants that are just beginning to show stress so you can find a solution quickly, so the grower doesn’t have any reduced yield or quality issues,” said Phil Hamm, director of HAREC.

The aircraft that will fly over OSU’s 50-acre plot is called a HawkEye, sold by Tetracam. The hull-less, battery-operated aircraft is about the size of a suitcase and weighs 8 pounds. A motor and propeller allow it to take off on four wheels and a parachute keeps it aloft. Photos and videos can be seen here.

According to Hamm a new programmable Lindsey Irrigation center pivot system, installed at HAREC, and donated by Lindsey through IRZ Consulting, is a key component to the project. The pivot system will allow researchers to produce randomized, replicated treatments designed to look at deficit irrigation as well as reduce fertility application under normal cultural systems found in the Columbia Basin.

A delta-winged aircraft made of plastic foam will fly over the farm west of Boardman. Made by Procerus Technologies, called a Unicorn, a bungee cord launches it like a slingshot. More information on the Unicorn is available here.

OSU is leasing the aircraft from Boeing Research & Technology and n-Link, an information technology company in Bend, Ore., is also a partner in the project.

OSU will demonstrate the HawkEye during its potato field day at the Hermiston research center on June 26.

Orwellian police state deploys drones to narc on Oregon’s potatoes

By Hudson Hongo Apr 10, 2013

Despite the grim predictions of movies like The Terminator and The Matrix, the robots of 2013 fall distinctly on the banal side of evil, generally looking less like the T-800 and more like Roomba or that guy on Twitter selling \/14GR4. But our low-rent dystopian future is perhaps best typified by the domestic spying drones soon to be used on Oregon’s potato fields, which somehow manage to be deeply unsettling while also totally boring.

The two unmanned spud SCUDs will take their first flight in Hermiston, OR later this month, where OSU researchers will use their infrared cameras to monitor the health of potato crops and presumably also their allegiance to the U.S. government. Thankfully, neither tot-bot is equipped with munitions of any kind, backing up OSU’s only slightly ominous claim that they’re for agricultural research and “will be used to do nothing more than that.”

Still, the program is certain to trouble those of us still struggling to accept the earthbound robots that don’t ogle our taters, so OSU is hosting a “check out our mostly-not-terrifying skydroid” day on June 26. The event will be open to the public, but attendees are advised against wearing anything too Taliban-y.