Ag experts show off unmanned helicopter at Spence Field

Published: Aug. 20, 2013 at 2:22 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 25, 2013 at 9:40 PM EDT
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MOULTRIE, GA (WALB) - South Georgia researchers have developed a mini helicopter that could be the future of farming.

Their research project is funded by the Georgia Centers of Innovation for Aerospace and Agribusiness.

The Georgia Cotton Commission, Georgia Peanut Commission, Sunbelt Ag Expo, University of Georgia Tifton Campus, and Middle Georgia State College are all supporting the project, which focuses on the imaging of cotton and peanuts.

They use mini-helicopters used to capture images as they fly over fields to detect pests, irrigation, diseases and nutrient issues well before they can be detected by the human eye; early detection can save crops, decrease pesticide use and allow increased yields and profits.

Experts predict that unmanned aircraft systems will skyrocket over the next few years, and that agriculture is the largest potential market for these systems following integration.

The small helicopter is a project more than two years in the making. If it gets approval from the federal aviation administration, farmers across the country could soon be using it to help grow their crops.

"We brought folks together from the unmanned aerospace industry to South Georgia to talk with farmers because we saw potential to take aerospace technology and apply it to agribusiness. They are both two big industries in the state," says Steve Justice, Director of the Georgia Center for Innovation for Aerospace.

The remote-controlled helicopter takes aerial photos, which give farmers an overall view of their crop without having to walk through their fields.

"They are telling us that having that eye in the sky allows them to look down on the crops, and get a sense of the health of the crops, do they need to put more water here, do they have an infestation here, do they need to spray more here, so its really an opportunity to allow them to increase their yields," says Justice.

It takes high resolution images from 700 feet above the ground, and it flies below cloud cover, which means on a cloudy day, it can take clear images that satellites can't.

"Up to this point, for aerial imagery,  farmers have depended on satellites, which again you don't get  images on a regular basis, or high altitude manned aircraft, which you can get some imagery, but not regularly, so unmanned systems is going to really give them that advantage of regularity," he says.

Only about two percent of American families farm. As the world's population grows, finding ways to make farming efficient and sustainable is more important than ever.

"We are going to have to make higher yields on less land, we are losing land, productive land, not gaining it," says Extension Agronomist Glen Harris.

Experts say the agricultural business has an economic impact of about 70 billion dollars a year on the state of Georgia.

They hope to get approval from the FAA for commercial use by 2015.

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