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NDSU Tests Tech Hand-Held Device That May Someday go on a Drone
Post Date: Sep 26 2017

A North Dakota State University engineer looks like Inspector Gadget in the historic test fields west of campus. He is studying a blinking, high-tech probe that someday may be deployed via drones to scout crops for things like disease and insect pests. John Nowatzki, an NDSU engineer, is just learning about the probe, which looks like a glistening light saber, with colored blinking lights emanating from around its end.

The high-tech probe ultimately may look very different and could be deployed on an aerial drone to collect data under a crop canopy. High resolution images would be fed into a computer to determine whether there’s a nitrogen deficiency on a leaf, or a certain kind of disease or insect,” Nowatzki says.

Talking plants

The probe is really about integrated pest management, says Orlando Saez (pronounced “size”), chief executive officer of Aker Technologies Inc., with offices in Chicago and Winnebago, Minn., the company that is building the technology and is working with the university to validate its results. Aker has been around since 2014 and is in the high-tech crop data business. “We like to think we are in the agricultural intelligence sector,” Saez says. If the technology pans out as hoped, an agronomist or crop scout could identify 20 places of interest on a field and “just send the drone out there, get the data and come back,” Nowatzki says. Saez says the tool could “empower agronomists to do more.” The goal is to help more economically scout a field for such things as soybean aphids, whose numbers can change quickly and hit economic thresholds.

“Every plant has a voice. We just help tell that story,” Saez says.

In its test phase, Nowatzki will use an experimental prototype probe that is hand-held by a researcher, walking through a field. The device in its current form is about 3 feet long and weighs about 2 pounds, including a missile-shaped end. The throat of the device encases three sensor cameras and other sensors which may or may not be on the final probe. It is controlled by a smartphone app and 360-degree imagery, with several millimeter pixel size. The images are referenced to a location with GPS. “They certainly intend to mount this on a drone so it would no longer be hand-held,” Nowatzki says. The logistics and engineering of the technology might be easier to ultimately solve than the agronomic science and verification by plant pathologists and entomologists, Nowatzki says.  “The question is, does it correlate to ground data,” Nowatzki says. “That’s the key. That’s always the key. Our objectives are not to see whether the technology will work, but to see if technology can accomplish something as well or better than a human can do it.”

Economic goals

Nowatzki was approached by Terry Sando, business manager of Unmanned Aerial Systems Operations at eSmart Systems in Grand Forks, N.D. Aker asked Nowatzki about research possibilities. Nowatzki in August applied for a $50,000 matching grant through the Research North Dakota program of the North Dakota Commerce Department. A decision on the grant will come in November, and the company has already raised funds for a potential match, Saez says. The grant would support NDSU research, but also could lead to value for farmers and economic activity related to unmanned aircraft systems, which the University of North Dakota and the state already are known for. Any actual agronomic research will be done at one of NDSU’s research stations throughout the state. One of the questions would be how much downward air pressure — wind — would be generated by a roto copter drone of adequate size. The answer may be a drone that lowers the probe mechanically, electronically, Nowatzki says.

“I think we’d have to have a distance of 10 to 12 feet, so it’s not a lot,” Nowatzki says. Saez says more testing would determine that: “That’s why we’re excited to work with NDSU.”  Up in the air? Today’s small roto copter drones often fly for about 30 minutes, and adding weight might cut its time capacity, but Saez says Aker is working with companies including Skyfront copters that can fly for about five hours. If everything worked out, Nowatzki theorizes that a 160-acre field might be scouted in about 15 minutes, with the drone deploying a probe in a new location once every minute. Saez says the plan is to fly fast enough to be efficient enough to cover large acres of row crops.

“It’s only going to take a few seconds to take the image, and then you move it onto another location,” Nowatzki says. Nowatzki says he thinks the equipment will work. “You can certainly see aphids, clearly, from the imagery we’ve seen so far. The question is, can we use a computer program to analyze these images and quickly count them?” Aker’s free software options are in used in 19 countries. The company already is in standard data collection and analytics with Winfield, BASF, Bayer and Helena Chemical Co. The Winfield system distributes Aker’s service through their cooperative partners.
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