The Potential for the Use of Drones in Rice Production and Research
H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station/Southwest Region
The use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) is becoming much more commonplace in many aspects of life today. A drone is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. A drone can be controlled by a human operator or with varying degrees of autonomy by onboard computers.
The first uses of drones were primarily for military applications. They were used as early as the 1960s during the Vietnam War, and over 3,400 UAV missions were conducted during the course of the war. Drones have also been used extensively for surveillance and combat missions in the Middle East in recent years. It is well understood that human pilotless military missions save American lives.
Today drones are rapidly moving from the battlefield to many other uses. Recently, we have heard of package delivery companies testing the use of drones for deliveries, especially in urban areas. Uses are also expanding into other avenues, such as filming and aerial photography in journalism; search and rescue missions (especially in challenging terrains); geographic mapping; border patrol; structural safety inspections of transmission towers, buildings, bridges, wind turbines, etc.; and also just for fun. Furthermore, as with most technology, the cost of UAVs has decreased dramatically in recent years.
While the potential uses for drones is almost limitless, many of the future applications are expected to be in agriculture. It has been estimated that in the future 70-80 percent of the commercial market for drones will be on the farm. It is hoped that in the future rice farmers and consultants will be able to monitor their fields in ways that they have never been able to before. Basically, drones can provide a bird’s-eye view of a rice field, either real time or from photos and/or videos. UAVs will be especially useful in rice production where, because the crop is grown under flood irrigation, it is much more cumbersome to traverse fields than in the case of most upland crops. Potential future uses include using UAVs to optimize the use of inputs (seed, fertilizers and water) and to react more efficiently and effectively to crop pests (weeds, insects and diseases). Additional uses will include saving time scouting fields as well as validating the effectiveness of inputs, such as fertilizers and herbicides. As technology progresses, it is envisioned that drones will facilitate the use of variable rate inputs as well as help in yield estimation.
Drones are also being used extensively at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station. One such project, funded by the Louisiana Rice Research Board, is investigating several potential applications in commercial rice production in the future. The project is evaluating using drones to use a GreenSeeker system above a rice field. GreenSeeker technology uses red and near infrared (NIR) light to measure the health of a crop. Red light is absorbed by plant chlorophyll as an energy source during photosynthesis. Therefore, healthy plants absorb more red light and reflect larger amounts of NIR than those that are unhealthy. The theory is that based on these measurements, technology can be developed to provide variable rates of a crop nutrient such as nitrogen specifically where it is needed. This project is also exploring whether a drone can be used to detect early plant population in a rice field to help determine if replanting is necessary where rice plant populations might be less than adequate. Specific objectives will be to determine if the UAVs can see very small rice plants, and if so, at what flying height and wavelengths work best to measure rice plant stands.
Another area where drones are being investigated is in the rice hybrid development program. In order to create a hybrid, strips of male sterile plants are planted between strips of male fertile plants. Pollen from the male fertile plants must be moved to the male steriles in order to pollinate them. This is often done by dragging a wet rope over the male fertiles then over the male steriles. Pollen is attached to the wet rope then deposited into the florets of the male steriles when drug over them. The hybrid breeding project is investigating whether a drone hovering over a group of male fertile plants will create enough wind turbulence to move that pollen over to the florets of the adjacent male sterile plants. If successful, they will greatly facilitate the production of experimental rice test crosses that can then be evaluated for yield, quality, disease resistance, earliness, etc.
The use of drones is strictly controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration. Most drones must be registered with the FAA, and there are restrictions on when and how drones can be flown. However, in five years, we will be talking about uses of drones in agriculture that we cannot even imagine today.
This project was partially supported by USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Permission granted April 15, 2017 by B. Leonards (LA Farm & Ranch) to republish article on www.lsuagcenter.com.
Rice station drone monitoring second crop harvest.