Unmanned aircrafts: a future for the agriculture industry

Leaders in the field of agricultural held an event in the Henry Madden Library on Friday night discussing the roles of hexacopters and drones in the agriculture industry and the public perception about unmanned aircrafts.

Dr. Gregory Kriehn, a professor in the Fresno State electrical and computer engineering department, led the conversation on what projects students are conducting with Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).

“What we’re interested in here at Fresno State is the the application of this technology in a civil environment and see tremendous amounts of application to be used for good,” Kriehn said.

Yet with the emergence of use of drones and UAS, Kriehn said there has been social and political effects.

“With the evolving of this technology, it is a seemingly disruptive technology,” Kriehn said. “There is a tremendous amount of political, social, cultural upheaval that is occurring with the adoption of unmanned technology.”

The distinction between drones and UAS is important because the word drone now evokes an emotional response, Kriehn said. Understanding the differences is necessary, as hexacopters can be used in various ways as opposed to drones, which are commonly attributed to being used in warfare, he added.

Walter Mizuno, a Fresno State professor in mechanical engineering, discussed the various ways UAS can assist farmers and growers to produce greater results.

“The ag problem seems like there are so many interesting problems out there that we can address,” said Mizuno.

Although the program was initially funded by the Air Force, Mizuno said they wanted to focus on projects that were “appropriate for the region,” which is agriculture. For example, using a hexacopter to fly over row crops or permanent trees to observe and monitor irrigation and water usage — at a perspective that is otherwise unobtainable — would provide growers with an efficient way to look at water distribution, a continual growing concern for farmers.

“There is a lot of different things that are being employed right now trying to use technology to manage both the environment and economic aspects of ag,” Mizuno said.

He explained how UAS could assist in stress management among crops. Using an infrared camera on a UAS, growers can see temperature changes along a row of crops. Any sections that are not receiving proper treatment or application could be detected firsthand from the aerial view.

Such applications have proven to be beneficial to the agriculture industry, accumulating $43.5 billion in revenue in 2013, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Stuart Woolf of farm and processing company Woolf Enterprises spoke about his firsthand experience using a UAS and applying it to agriculture. He currently uses a hexacopter to monitor acreage and products at his location in west Fresno.

“If you are just driving along the side of the field or you are depending to walk in that field, I think this is just another tool that you can use to provide greater insight,” Woolf said.

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