U researchers promote drone usage

Researchers say use of drones in the U.S. could spur innovation.

Christopher Aadland

Soaring overhead, drones across agricultural land in parts of more than a dozen Minnesota counties survey the landscape.

The operators of these unmanned aerial vehicles — University of Minnesota researchers — aren’t looking for enemy combatants or conducting observation for law enforcement. Instead, they’re flying the drones over soybean fields looking for a different kind of adversary: soybean aphids. These insects are known to cause significant damage to farmers’ soybean crops.

The researchers’ use of drones in agricultural research is one way the University is advancing UAV technology, which they say will benefit an industry that the Federal Aviation Administration predicts to be worth $90 billion globally over the next decade.

Currently, the FAA limits drone use to noncommercial organizations like the University. But the FAA is expected to release new safety regulations in the next year, which would open up the skies to commercial operators who hope to cash in on drones.

While a U.S. Department of Transportation audit found it unlikely that the FAA will meet that deadline, Ian MacRae, an entomology professor and a researcher with the project, said the agency must move quickly to establish regulations so the U.S. doesn’t lose its drone research and technology edge.

“We’re probably second to none in the development, but where we’re hurting is the application,” he said. “It’s important we get them incorporated in the national airspace safely.”

While the University researchers’ work highlights the usefulness of drones in a domestic setting, they say some are cautious of drones in U.S. airspace. So they hope their research will eliminate misconceptions while promoting the benefits of drones.

The concern over drone use prompted some state lawmakers to unsuccessfully draft legislation last session to restrict drone activity. Some University researchers fought that push, arguing it could hinder their work.

“Yes, they are being used for military and law enforcement applications,” said Demoz Gebre-Egziabher, an associate professor in the aerospace engineering and mechanics department and a faculty member in the school’s UAV Laboratory. “But there is an equally large, if not more, non-law enforcement and military application of these vehicles.”

The University project targeting soybean aphids was made possible by a $500,000 MnDRIVE grant that aims to make monitoring and destroying the insect infestations more efficient, MacRae said.

Through the use of drones, researchers hope to eliminate the need for a human to physically inspect fields for infestations, MacRae said, and then use the information gathered to more precisely and efficiently apply chemicals to kill the aphids.

But researchers have a broader goal with the aphid project, MacRae said.

By fighting aphid infestations more efficiently, the hope is that farmers will see the usefulness of drones to assist them in using this form of land monitoring to decrease their use of chemicals, he said.

The project is also relying on help from the University’s UAV Laboratory, which develops the software and programs used with the project’s drones, Gebre-Egziabher said.

The lab is also currently using its five drones — inexpensive model airplane kits modified by the lab — to make aircraft lighter, sturdier and more environmentally friendly, said Brian Taylor, director of the UAV Lab.

Drone-based research is not only leading to innovation in the fields of aviation and farming technology, Taylor said. It’s also helping reverse the misconception that drones are used only for the military and surveillance.

When people who are skeptical of drones’ practicality see the real-world applications, they get excited and see researchers as helping the world, Taylor said.

“I think that’s something most people can get behind,” he said.