Drones used to see what farmers can’t

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Piloting is not Bobby Vick’s forte.

Nonetheless, Vick was able to gently land a quad-copter aerial drone safely back on its target undamaged.

“I don’t generally fly them,” said Vick, a solutions engineer with PrecisionHawk. “The great thing about these drones is literally when you put them in the air, they fly themselves.”

Vick and a team from the commercial drone company used two drones to gather imagery of a Wilson tobacco field Monday.

The research project is led by North Carolina State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences doctoral student Joshua Henry, in collaboration with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson, Vick Family Farms and PrecisionHawk.

“All you have to do is tell the drone where to go,” Vick said. “The software is telling the drone what positions to go to and what altitude and speed to fly. The drone actually flies itself. Any one of us out here could fly these drones in five minutes time and feel comfortable doing it. It’s not a hard process to learn.”

Henry said drones are specifically suited for the study because they are able to fly over and get a lot of information very quickly.

“We are looking at six different nutrient disorders of tobacco,” Henry said. “We are looking at nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium deficiencies as well as magnesium and sulfur deficiencies and boron toxicity.”

Henry interspersed 600 test plants over about an acre of tobacco plants in a field off of Forest Hills Road in Wilson. Some 300 of them have the different disorders with about 50 plants for each deficiency or toxicity.

“This is the first year that we are using remote sensing and drones to try and distinguish them,” Henry said.

Drones fly nearly 200 feet overhead in a search pattern grid. Update flights will be made every two weeks for about two months.

“We are flying today the DGI Matrice 600 Pro. It is a six-prop, or hex copter, multi-rotor drone,” Vick said.

Josh Voelker with PrecisionHawk operated the larger drone. The base platform costs about $5,000. The drone’s payload of cameras, sensors and stabilizing gimbals can cost additional thousands of dollars.

Attached to it is a hyper-spectral sensor that collects 270 bands of light.

“Your camera is taking three bands — red, green blue. This has got 270 very narrow bands. What that is going to allow us to do is look for unique spectral signatures of disease,” Vick said.

“The drone is just going to be able to get a nice uniform view of all of the plants and the crop, and it is going to be able to distinguish some of the minor differences in colorization between a nitrogen-deficient plant and a potassium-deficient plant, for instance,” Henry said.

Henry said the hope is that the research will enable the farmer to develop a more specified fertilization plan.

Probably not for the year that they fly, but for the following year, they will be able to amend areas that are known to be nitrogen-deficient or phosphorous-deficient.

“That is pretty much the goal here,” Henry said.

Henry said the study wouldn’t be possible without the help of Vick Family Farms.

“They are going to be losing out on about an acre’s worth of crops,” Henry said. “They are making a big sacrifice for the sake of our research, so hopefully, in the long run, it will be worth it, and hopefully they will be able to apply what we are studying here.”

Linwood Vick of Vick Farms was there to see the drones in use Monday. “I think it’s always good to be looking ahead and not getting stuck in the past, so we are looking to do new things and new technology,” he said.

As Bobby Vick landed the smaller and less expensive of the two drones, a Matrice DGI 100, he said it is the probably the most used of the company’s drones.

Vick called it “the younger brother” of the larger Matrice DGI 600 Pro. With it, a licensed farmer can purchase a $1,500 drone and use it to do a basic assessment of his or her fields.

“This is the unit that a lot of farmers and a lot of entry level users have purchased from us because it’s easy to operate. It can fly for about 20 to 30 minutes. Depending on how you are flying you can cover anywhere from 75 or upwards of 150 acres in a single flight,” Vick said. “This particular model we can fly both RGB, which is your standard visual imagery for doing things like plant count or getting just a general assessment of the field, or we can put a multi-spectral camera on there, which allows us to see the near infrared band. The near infrared is what allows us to see different stresses or different problems that might be going on the field that aren’t necessarily visible to the human eye.”

Norman Harrell, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County, said the results of Henry’s research will be available to tobacco farmers before they plant next year’s crop.

Bobby Vick, who earned his doctorate two years ago from NCSU, is the son of Robert and Martha Vick of Wilson. His doctoral research focused on using new technology to aid agriculture.