If a picture is worth 1,000 words, what are thousands of pictures worth? If they help you manage your operation more efficiently, they might be, as the TV advertisement suggests, priceless.
While Kevin Price will let you decide the worth of his pictures, the Kansas State University (KSU) professor is pretty sure you’ll like what you can learn from a buzzard’s-eye view of your pastures. He’s doing research using small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), or radio-operated airplanes for short, the kind you might see buzzing around a city park on a sunny Saturday.
While flying the planes is undeniably fun, Price takes a more workmanlike approach. In fact, when mounted with a camera and other electronic gadgetry, the models he and his students fly may very well be one of the most innovative and useful ranch management tools ever.
“We use a very lightweight plane of foam construction,” he says. “But it has some very advanced technology on it” — like a guidance system with GPS capability. Program the coordinates of your pasture and the plane will fly a grid pattern and take pictures.
And not just any pictures. While the camera is a common point-and-shoot digital camera, its capabilities have been upgraded significantly — it takes both infrared and normal wavelength photos with enough resolution to see literally every inch of ground.
“Then we have software that will put all the pictures together to make one big mosaic, so that we can look at a fairly large area,” Price says. “We’ve used that camera to fly an area about the size of a section, around 600 acres. We can fly that entire area in about 15 minutes.”
Because the camera will take both infrared and normal pictures, “You see things in the aerial photography you don’t see standing on the ground, because it’s a whole different perspective,” he says. If you want to look for cows or check water tanks, you can do that.
“Or if you want to look at how much vegetation is available for your cattle, we’re building mathematical models that will tell how many pounds/acre or tons/acre of biomass is out there. We’re working on methods to tell you what types of grasses or which species of plants are growing,” he adds.
Of particular interest to Price are invasive species. Given that the technology will soon be able to identify every plant species in a pasture, and how much is there, its potential as a resource management tool is huge. That, Price says, is just the start. The potential of the technology is limited only by the imagination of those who use it.
When the research is done, possibly in just a couple of years, Price estimates he can put a plane in the air for around $5,000. But it’s not as simple as just buying the plane and the gizmos and starting to buzz pastures right away.
Even though the plane can fly itself with the GPS technology aboard, a human is still needed for takeoff and landing, and to occasionally take over in midflight should something go awry. “Our experience has been, almost every time we do automated flight, there’s something we need to do, take over for a moment and get back on course,” he says.
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And in the process of learning how to fly, he says you’re going to crash. In fact, you’re going to crash a lot. So you don’t want to train on a $5,000 plane. “Buy a $60 plane and learn with it.” To that end, Price says without the help of airplane hobbyist and KSU veterinary professor Deon van der Merwe, he and his students wouldn’t be nearly as far along as they are.
Research on applications, and the mathematical models that will enable the technology to analyze more and greater things, is ongoing. “So within the next few years — two or three, we hope — there will be a lot more people using this technology for a lot of different applications,” he says.
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