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UAS-assisted ag research taking off in North Dakota

Ian MacRae of the University of Minnesota-Crookston looks over one of the UAS vehicles on display during a tour at the Northland Aerospace UAS Summit on April 15 in Thief River Falls, Minn. Photo by Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS - An unmanned aircraft took to the skies recently over a plot of land about three miles north of Carrington.

The fights on May 5 and 9 were practice runs for a research project set to unfold this summer. One of the aircraft's main tasks doesn't sound exciting, but watching crops grow from the air could be the next biggest advancement in agriculture.

These flights at the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center signify the start of research into the uses of unmanned aerial systems in the state.

North Dakota is one of six states designated as UAS test sites by the Federal Aviation Administration and the first state authorized to have an operating site.

The flights also mark the beginning of a research partnership between NDSU and the University of North Dakota, whose UAS flight team operates the unmanned aircraft called a Draganflyer.

"We'll be using the two strengths of both programs to advance this technology," said center director Blaine Schatz.

The research mission at Carrington - 45 minutes northwest of Jamestown - will focus on agriculture, with both crop and livestock monitoring avenues being explored.

Test flights

The recent flights at the research center were less about collecting data and more about the pilots acclimating to the area under examination.

"We were doing what's called a functional check flight," said Trevor Woods, a UAS instructor for UND.

The Draganflyer resembles a small helicopter with four propellers and operates with a crew of three people: a pilot, payload operator and an observer.

While the pilot flies the aircraft, the observer - required by the FAA - watches for other aircraft or hazards.

The payload operator monitors data transmissions from the UAS. Payload refers to the data transmitted from the aircraft.

The same brand of aircraft has been used by UND in conjunction with law enforcement in the region.

"Given our experience with the system, it was a logical choice to use for this first project at the test site since we already had trained pilots," Woods said. Risk mitigation and UND dispatch procedures also were established for that type of unmanned aircraft.

The test flights were successful, Woods said. There were a few bumps involving the payload, but those problems were resolved, he said.

This coming week, the aircraft is expected to be back in the skies. Schatz and Woods said the group is aiming for weekly flights.

"We're going to try to fly every week till the funding runs out," Woods said.


The recent soggy weather in the region has limited planting on the research center's land, but Schatz said the UAS will have plenty to observe once things are in full swing.

Using cameras, the Draganflyer will collect data on the cattle and more than 25 crops grown on 1,300 acres - about two square miles - of land owned by the center.

On average, research center staff members conduct about 375 field experiments each year, according to Schatz.