FAA Lightening Drone Restrictions, K-State Leading UAV Research

August 30, 2016 01:20 PM

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have taken the country to new heights.

As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration built a registry and set guidelines to use drones.

Starting this week, some of those restrictions will be lessened, which could mean big benefits for agriculture and farming.

Every drop of water counts in the west, where drought has plagued the area, and Advanced Drone Technology is helping California farmers save the scarce resource.

“The drought’s been a huge deal and it’s driven us towards the efficiency angle just as much as we can,” said Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming Company. “We invest in these really expensive drip systems that save us 40 to 50 percent of the water we used to use.”

A thermal camera attached to a drone finds leaks in a hurried drip line, and Michael estimates 550 families of four could sustain on that water.

“With this drone technology, we can get right in there,” said Michael. “We can make sure that the system is working properly, that we’re designing systems properly and that we’re detecting any problems before they lead to water loss.”

The drone industry says roughly 2,100 companies and individuals have federal permission to fly drones for farming.

“You can also fly in real time and see things like thermal differences within the canopy, learn where leaks are,” said Michael. “It’s so new that we don’t know all the potential of what there is. It’s evolving so quickly that we’re just trying to get started and make sure we’re on the front edge of it.”

On Monday, federal regulators relaxed the rules on commercial drones, a move that could spur greater use of such aircraft on American farms. It lets operators apply for waivers to operate at night, beyond the line of sight, above 400 feet, and other specific types of operation.

Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus has teamed up with Precision Hawk, a leading drone data and safety company, to investigate how a pilot can safely operate a UAV when it’s flying outside their line of sight and other potential expansions of operations for the industry.

“In order for us to include UAVs in the national airspace, this is something the FAA wants,” says Dr. Ally Ferguson, director of research and educational partnerships with Precision Hawk. “This is something the industry wants. It’s something that consumers want, but in order to be able to do that, we need to be able to give them the quantitative results that allow them to make risk-based decisions.”

The experiments will calculate levels of safety by testing a UAV operator’s abilities such as pilot response time and decision making when confronted by a manned aircraft.

Faculty and students from Kansas State are helping with the study, operating as simulation testers and providing piloting and other technical expertise in hopes of growing the industry’s ability to safely innovate in the field.

For Michael’s California operation, that innovation is literally saving a precious resource.

“We find these leaks, and we’re actually able to send a crew out to go and correct it,” said Michael. They’ll have to dig down and repair that tape. That can cost hundreds of gallons of water if you don’t detect that. Even more if it’s prevalent throughout the field. If you got a big leaking system, that’s not doing you any good and it’s not doing your water resources any good. We’ve been able to proactively go after those leaks and identify them.”

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