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Drone experts: Industry still in infancy

Matt Hayes of RDO Integrated Controls speaks at the Drone Focus Conference held in Fargo Wednesday. Dave Olson/The Forum1 / 2
Neeraj Visen, left, and Dale Zetocha try their hands at dueling drones at the Drone Focus Conference Wednesday, June 3, 2015, at the Fargo Jet Center. Dave Wallis / The Forum 2 / 2

FARGO—For all the talk these days about drones, the unmanned aerial vehicle industry is still in its infancy.

That was the message Wednesday at the Drone Focus Conference at the Fargo Jet Center, where attendees watched small drones in action and heard from speakers who shared perspectives on non-military uses for drones.

John Nowatzki, an agricultural machine systems specialist with North Dakota State University, said that while drones are finding their way into agricultural operations, they haven't taken off the way some expected, partly because before farmers invest in drones and associated software, they want to be convinced of the benefits.

"The technology is there. It's pretty impressive what they can do," Nowatzki said of drones, adding that what the ag industry is waiting for is someone who can tell them exactly how drones will help their bottom line.

"There's a great, great need for research," he said.

Matt Hayes of RDO Integrated Controls gave conference attendees an idea of what drones can do for farmers and others whose livelihoods depend on land management.

For example, he said, a construction company that wants to know just how much material is in a big pile of dirt can pass a drone over the site and use three-dimensional imaging from the drone's camera to come up with an answer.

Likewise, he said, infrared photography is useful in determining the health of vegetation, which helps operations ranging from farms to golf courses.

Both Hayes and Nowatzki said that when it comes to operating drones, the best approach is to let an autopilot do most of the flying while keeping manual override an option when quick action is needed to avoid hazards.

"Let the computer do the flying," Nowatzki stressed.

He added that researchers at NDSU are looking into many different aspects of drones and how they can assist agriculture, including gauging the impact of oil drilling on crops and livestock, and employing heat sensors to determine from the sky which animals in a herd may be ill or are becoming sick.

Nowatzki said one area of drone use he feels bears further exploration is the potential for gathering data over a large area and making that information available to groups that would find such information valuable, possibly commercially.

"I think there's a real business opportunity there," he said.

Dave Olson
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