Can UAVs Tell Us More Than What We See on the Ground?


With all the excitement about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in agriculture, it’s important to understand the reliability of information collected by UAVs. Can we trust their accuracy to make farm management decisions? Beyond that, could UAV data tell us something before we see it on the ground?

Researchers in North Dakota are evaluating whether observations based on UAV imagery match observations on the ground, both in crop and livestock production.

“We’re trying to do a proof-of-concept. Can we pick out problems — insects, nutrient deficiencies, disease issues — in crops from the air that researchers are finding on the ground?” explains John Nowatzki, agricultural machinery specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service, in the video below (filmed during the Big Iron Farm Show in Fargo.)

Related: Why Imaging Technology Can’t Replace Scouting Skills

In other words, they’re determining whether observations from the new eyes in the sky match what the eyes on the ground are seeing.

“If an agronomist or researcher on the ground finds a specific disease infestation in wheat or in soybeans, they can quantify and qualify it based on the severity. We’ll take the imagery flown at the same time and if they find that 65 percent of that crop is infested, we’ll see if we come up with the same numbers or something different,” he says. “In addition, we hope to be able to identify some of these problems before people pick them up on the ground with their eyes.”

The study is also looking at the reliability of UAV data in livestock applications, ranging from feedlot inventory counts to assessing body temperatures for determining whether an animal is sick or in heat.

Observations are being collected approximately every week through the growing season, with a final report likely to be published in November.

NDSU is collaborating with the University of North Dakota’s aerospace program to conduct the research. UND is the first school in the U.S. to offer an undergraduate degree in unmanned aircraft systems, and Federal Aviation Agency rules require that UND researchers conduct the flights.

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