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NDSU tests new 'spray drone': ‘Smart farm’ concept addresses small weed patches

Cooper Krause, a seasonal employee at North Dakota State University, prepares a new “UAV sprayer” for flight, at the NDSU’s Agronomy Seed Farm in Casselton, N.D., on July 16, with a grain elevator in Casselton in the background. Photo taken July 16, 2018, at Casselton, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)1 / 4
From left: John Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University Extension agricultural engineer, watches with graduate student Nadia Delavarpour and Cooper Krause, watch as a new spray drone flies through a flight and application pattern prior to a field day at Casselton, N.D., on July 16. Photo taken July 16, 2018, at Casselton, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)2 / 4
A new AG V6+ drone, built by Homeland Surveillance & Electronics, LLC, based in Las Vegas, Nev., can carry and apply more than 4 gallons of pesticides and sprays with a six-foot boom, which can be equipped with varying nozzles. Photo taken July 16, 2018, at Casselton, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)3 / 4
Spray drone pilots Cooper Krause and Nadia Delavarpour prepare to launch a spray drone prior to an annual field day at North Dakota State University’s Agronomy Seed Farm near Casselton, N.D., on July 16. Photo taken July 16, 2018, at Casselton, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)4 / 4

CASSELTON, N.D. — Meet the the future — spot-spraying with a drone.

The model AG V6+ is a 6-foot-wide spray boom, acquired by North Dakota State University. It will soon be tested for its ability to accurately spray herbicides autonomously.

The new industrial "unmanned aerial vehicle" arrived three weeks ago. It is capable of carrying more than 4 gallons of liquid. Operators can send it to spray precise locations of problem weeds. The scientists hope to determine the locations separately from high-resolution drone imagery.

The NDSU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering department in Fargo unveiled the machine at a field day near Williston, N.D., on July 11. It again was on display July 16 at the Agronomy Seed Farm field day near Casselton.

John Nowatzki, the NDSU Extension engineer in charge of the project, says the drone project is part of a "smart farm" concept the university has been developing at Casselton and Minot. At Casselton, scientists implement various kinds of high-tech precision agriculture techniques on one quarter of land. Similarly, a "smart ranch" concept is under consideration at Dickinson.

Economists will scrutinize each new technique to see how smart they are from a return-on-investment perspective.

Nowatzki says he only knows of spray drone work like this at the University of Nebraska and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Texas.

NDSU's drone is manufactured by an American company — Homeland Surveillance & Electronics, based in Las Vegas, with principles in the Illinois area. NDSU paid $18,000 for the machine, including three days of training for one individual. The university is partnering with several companies, including Microsoft.

NDSU is training three pilots — one technician and two graduate students — for its ongoing use who will supervise the autonomous flight, but also can step in to operate it manually with a joystick.

Nowatzki says his department hasn't specified a research project but starting in August, NDSU will load it with a dye to spray patterns on water-sensitive paper to collect data on its coverage and application rate.

"It's not something that's going to compete with aerial applicators or ground-sprayers," Nowatzki emphasized, repeatedly. "We see it as having an application for small weed patches and for rangelands to spray species like leafy spurge," he says.

33 acres an hour

The AG V6+ drone has six rotors and is battery-powered in a black carbon-fiber chassis. With the full 4 gallons, the machine can operate for 30 minutes and averages 33 acres in an hour. It could could make a pattern from a 6-foot wide spray boom or directed to specific areas. Much of the spraying would happen from 6 feet or less above the crop canopy. There would be no crop damage or soil compaction because the spraying isn't from the ground.

"We are only flying it within line of sight," Nowatzki says. Nowatzki didn't immediately know what its outer distance range is but says it would have "no difficulty going a mile and back."

The machine could be used to meet insect infestations that sometimes are present at field ends.

Still another possible use for the technology is as a cattle sprayer for applying insecticides.

The machine itself can pull the trigger to apply the material if it is spraying a pattern. "If you're going to do specific locations, you're going to have to press the trigger when it goes to those locations," Nowatzki says.

Currently the Federal Aviation Administration requires drone training but also special licensing to apply pesticides from a UAV. The FAA requires the operator taking pesticide training from certified training specialists. For information on the company, email INFO@HSE-UAV.com, or call 309-361-7656.