Feature Story

Checking out spuds

Boeing is part of a team exploring how unmanned aerial vehicle technologies can help farmers grow healthier crops

For generations, farmers have looked to the sky for clues on how their crops would fare. Now a team of Boeing experts in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology is collaborating with university and government researchers in Oregon to develop an “eye in the sky” that can help farmers grow healthy and profitable crops in the most environmentally progressive way possible.

Boeing, Oregon State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are testing a system featuring two types of small UAVs equipped with specialized cameras to monitor more than 350 acres of potato fields in Hermiston, Ore. The goal is to test and validate various cameras equipped with multi-spectral sensors that can detect unhealthy plants. This information would help farmers better use water, fertilizers and pesticides to boost yields and cut costs. Boeing approached the university last year about collaborating on the project and has helped facilitate the use of two UAVs and a ground station for the research.

“This is an example of how Boeing is using its technological strength and business knowledge to provide responsible environmental leadership," said Dan Gadler, an engineer for Boeing Research & Technology, the company's central advanced research and development unit and Boeing's principal investigator for this test. "We're addressing an emerging need as the world population continues to grow while the amount of arable land is on the decline.”

"The ability for this technology to detect problems
in the field really appeals to me."

Both UAVs were on display at the recent Hermiston Agricultural Research & Extension Center (HAREC) as part of Oregon State’s annual Potato Field Day. In the morning, farmers and other attendees were given a brief background of the project, known as Precision Agriculture, before watching a six-minute flight demonstration of the eight-pound, suitcase-shaped HawkEye aircraft. The electric propulsion UAV took off from a nearby access strip and flew over approximately 10 acres of potato fields at 100 feet, snapping nearly 200 photos that were shared with attendees later in the day.

“It’s a big time game-changer because early detection (of disease and distress) is critical,” said Bob Mueller, a farmer who grew potatoes for 30 years on 6,500 acres south of nearby Boardman, Ore., about the technology.

And considering that potatoes are one of Oregon’s largest crops, accounting for $173 million in sales last year, these technologies could greatly benefit the agriculture industry, researchers said.

According to Don Horneck, an agronomist with the college's Extension Service, potatoes were chosen as the focus of this research because they are a high-valued crop, expensive to raise - it typically costs Hermiston farmers $4,000 or more per acre to grow potatoes - and must be carefully managed to reduce blemishes and irregular growth.

The research, which is scheduled to continue until fall, aims to determine if the high-power cameras can detect plants that are not getting enough fertilizer and water, plants infected by insects or disease, or weeds.

"The key is to pick up plants that are just beginning to show stress so you can find a solution quickly, so the grower doesn’t have any reduced yield or quality issues," said Phil Hamm, the director of HAREC.

The Boeing, Oregon State and government team is working in conjunction with key industries, including PARADIGMisr, a company based in Bend, Ore., that specializes in the management and implementation of collection systems for unmanned vehicles, and CHS Inc., an agribusiness owned by farmers, ranchers and cooperatives across the United States.