Posted: 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012

OSU sees farming uses for drones

Clark County’s ties to drone work, farming jobs could make good fit for ag UAVs.



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OSU seesfarminguses fordrones photo
Ohio State University’s 15-pound drone prototype for aerial imaging of crops is on display this week at the Farm Science Review near London, Ohio.

By Andrew McGinn

Staff Writer

LONDON, Ohio —

The same technology used to hunt militants in the Mideast could one day be put to use on farms here in the Midwest.

A researcher from Ohio State University envisions the day — less than a decade from now — when a farmer waters the crops then launches an unmanned aerial vehicle to monitor precisely where the water went.

“I definitely think this is a staple of future farming operations,” predicted Matt McCrink, a 27-year-old Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering.

The university this week put its inaugural drone prototype on public display for the first time at the Farm Science Review, an annual showcase of ag technology that runs through Thursday at the Molly Caren Agricultural Center in Madison County.

The Dayton-Springfield region already is positioning itself to be a nationally recognized hub of UAV research and development, and a drone for agricultural use hits home even further — one of every seven jobs in Ohio is tied to farming.

The region wants to become one of six sites nationally that soon will be designated by the Federal Aviation Administration for the testing of UAVs. The FAA wants to determine if UAVs can safely be integrated into manned airspace by 2015, and the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport has been eyed as one such testing space.

Whether or not the region wins a designation — which local officials say could also result in a number of new jobs — one thing is certain. There’s plenty of ground here for agricultural drones to someday cover.

In 2011, 153,400 acres of corn were planted in Clark and Champaign counties, with 147,200 acres of soybeans.

But if you’re expecting something akin to the military’s already-iconic Predator drone, rethink your expectations. Ohio State’s flying-wing design, dubbed The Peregrine, has a wingspan of just six feet and weighs only about 15 pounds.

A commercially available drone might not look the same, McCrink said, but the concept will. The Peregrine is made of lightweight carbon fiber, and can be launched by hand with a simple toss.

At first glance, it might be mistaken for a toy.

“The less parts, the less there is to break,” McCrink said. “That’s the mentality.”

Battery-powered, OSU’s aircraft can fly at speeds up to 150 mph for an hour and a half, imaging 5,000 acres on a single flight with its camera.

The imaging could be used to cheaply and quickly monitor plant health and pesticide dispersal, and to detect changes in water content, all of which could be used to predict future crop yields and soil health.

“This gives you robust and very quick feedback,” McCrink said.

The craft also is almost fully autonomous, according to McCrink. A farmer using a program like Google Earth would only need to click on the four corners of their field. The craft then plots its own course, he said.

“This is a game changer,” McCrink said of the technology.

It’s hoped drones will have an unlimited number of everyday uses, despite rising privacy concerns. An Australian news site reported recently that a UAV company there has proposed monitoring beaches with them for sharks as a cheaper alternative to current helicopter patrols.

In this country at least, UAVs aren’t yet allowed into the skies, except for institutional pilot programs. Ohio State’s pilot program hasn’t yet been cleared by the FAA, McCrink said, keeping The Peregrine from taking its maiden autonomous flight.

And on Tuesday morning, with a steady rain, McCrink was loathe to take the plane out for a manually controlled flight.

“That’s more pilot limited at this point,” he said. “I don’t want to stand out there. It’s the human factor, if you will.”

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