Virginia Turfgrass Council – New Technology to Improve Turfgrass Management Efficiency? The Future May Be Here!
Virginia Turfgrass Journal – James Horton
Today’s turfgrass managers have seen unbelievable change in equipment, tools and technology during their careers. New innovations have allowed turfgrass managers to become more efficient with manpower and budgets. The best turfgrass managers have been trained to look for the latest innovations, however small or large, that will give them an edge in performing their jobs. We’ve all seen those new inventions that made huge, positive impacts in our daily tasks. Some seemed so simple that we wished we had thought of it first. Others we didn’t even see on the horizon, and the next one is no exception. In fact, you will have to look skyward to see it coming.
Drones are here! It may seem farfetched but in the near future drones may be standard equipment for turfgrass managers across our industry. Sod producers, sports field managers, golf course superintendents, lawn care companies, institutions, etc., may very well own and use drones in conducting daily business, maintenance and sales in the years to come.
Introduction to Drones
Satellites and low-altitude aircraft have been commonly used in agriculture, especially row crops, for a variety of reasons, but only minimally in turfgrass due to the smaller acreage. However, all types of turfgrass venues could be ideal niches for drones, or more correctly stated, small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS).
The word drone was coined from the buzzing hum made by this small aircraft’s propellers, which is similar to that of a male honeybee known as a drone. A grading system is used to classify sUAS by use and delineates which drones are toys and which are not. The grading criteria considers the overall size of the unit (sUAS are defined as weighing 55 pounds or less, while full-scale UAS weigh more than 55 pounds), plus its capabilities such as flight endurance, method of operation and type of payload. There are three categories of sUAS; Hobbyist, Enforcement, and Commercial. The hobbyist grade has been available at almost every hobby and toy store for several years. The enforcement grade is used by military and law enforcement and are not available to the average citizen due to the array of sensors and weapons they could carry. The commercial grade is the type used for agricultural research and by serious pilots for business and profit. The use of drones by turfgrass managers would be considered commercial.
The pilotless nature of these unmanned aircraft raised the concern of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) years ago since it has jurisdiction over the National Airspace through its network of air navigation facilities using Air Traffic Control centers and airports. In 2007, the FAA issued a policy that stated “no person may operate a UAS in the National Airspace System without specific authority.” In 2013, the FAA created six UAS testing sites to better understand the use and safety of UAS. The government has primarily been concerned over safety as it relates to crashes, radio frequency, insurance issues and privacy. As usual, government is trying to play catch up with technology. For now, UAS operators/pilots must comply with the FAA’s current licensing policy which has two certifications: Certification of Authorization only for public entities such as government agencies and universities; and for all others a Certification of Airworthiness is required to ensure the aircraft and its systems will not pose a public threat. Incidentally, public entities also are required to attain a Certificate of Airworthiness. Those seeking to operate a drone should first understand the regulatory process to legally pilot a sUAS. To that point, passing Part 107 FAA Drone Pilot Exam is required to pilot commercial sUAS aircraft, and this is not an easy test. In fact, there are study courses that you can pay to take that will prepare you for this test.
Other Details You Should Know
There are two basic body styles for sUAS: Rotary and Fixed-wing.
- Rotary drones are helicopter-like, with multiple propellers depending on its size and payload, and can take off from its current position unassisted as long as it has minimal clearance. These aircraft are highly maneuverable and capable of hovering or flying at slow or fast speeds. Two-thirds of all sUAS aircraft are rotary.
- Fixed-wing drones are plane-like, vary in size depending on their payloads, and require some kind of launch assistance or runway for take-off. These aren’t used as often as rotary but do offer certain advantages such as longer flight times and greater distances covered.
Flying sUAS takes skill and practice since they are controlled remotely using handheld radio controllers equipped with joy sticks to adjust the drones speed, range and attitude via WiFi. It should be noted, the FAA has placed altitude restrictions over the entire country. Drone pilots can use an app called AirMap to see the restrictions. Drones cannot fly above 400 feet so not to interfere with commercial airplanes, in some areas less and still other areas not at all. In addition, the range of the aircraft is constrained within the Line-of-Sight (LOS) of the pilot or visual observer. This has been an FAA rule, but one that doesn’t seem to be enforced very often. In fact, many new sUAS models now have auto-pilot capability. Auto-pilot software has gotten easier to program and is available to the public. One such software is Arduino. This software works with the pilot manually flying the drone to certain locations and marking the location with GPS coordinates. Once that information is input, along with the desired attitude and speed for the drone to reach each location in the sequence selected, the drone will fly itself and return to the start point. If the drone is equipped with a real-time imaging camera, the image will be seen on the controller’s laptop or IPad. This will allow the remote control operator to virtually sit in the “cockpit” of the drone and see exactly what the drone sees on the controller’s screen. It’s not uncommon for drones to have 20 Megapixel still picture and 4K video camera capability and with lithium batteries supplying 30 minutes of flight time (less in windy conditions) abundant images can be captured.
As you can see, drones have amazing capability and, since they are unmanned, they can handle certain jobs that are considered laborious, routine and in some cases too dangerous for humans. Here is a short list of how drones have been used: Aerial photography; agricultural applications; border surveillance; bio-security; suspect tracking; surveying forest and structure fires; traffic monitoring; disaster response, relief and rescue; damage assessment and surveying; atmospheric and weather research; infrastructure monitoring; wildlife monitoring; power, pipe line and mining surveillance; movie production; aerial news coverage; mail and freight transport; flood mapping; real estate mapping; and sporting event coverage.
Sensors Used by Drones
Engineers and system designers have been working with other researchers to meet the growing uses and needs of sUAS users across the many applications they could be used. One of the biggest challenges has been the miniaturization of sensors so that the payload did not over tax the light weight aircraft.
Drones normally carry built-in sensors to aid in navigation, collision avoidance and flight operation. Collision avoidance can be turned off to allow the drone to fly closer to objects such as trees or buildings. Additionally, sensors can be added for specific data collection. The type and sophistication of sensors being used in agricultural research is growing with potentially endless types of information being collected. Below are some of the sensors currently being used in agriculture that could have roles in managing turfgrass in the near future.
- Global Information Systems (GIS) to track the unit’s location during flight and to collect data on a target subject.
- RGB Digital Cameras are full frame digital cameras using a variety of special filters to capture red, green and blue (RGB) photons to create a high quality visible-band image.
- Modified RGB Digital Cameras are RGB cameras that have been modified with different filters for specific data acquisition.
- Multispectral sensors can discriminate specific wavelengths, and use this information compared to correlations developed with plant biophysical processes using vegetation indices for specific plant targets being scanned. These scanners can be used for nutrient, water stress, disease, weed and general crop monitoring.
- Hyperspectral sensors capture narrow spectral bands over a continuous spectral range, thus capturing more detailed information than multi-spectral sensors.
- Laser scanning can be used to capture the shape of objects, including plants, by steering laser beams in a controlled fashion at the target and then measure the distance at every pointing direction. Lasers have been used in construction and surveying for years and are very accurate for measurements. They can then be used to generate two- and three-dimensional images of the target. A laser system known as LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) is used in forestry to measure canopy cover, biomass, tree count and height. Other laser scanners are used for 3-D mapping.
- Thermal infrared imaging sensors for sUAS are becoming more common as both weight and size are reduced. They are mostly used to monitor water stress and disease detection.
- Spectrometer sensors measure the electromagnetic spectrum and can show intensity as a function of wavelength or frequency. One such system is used to assess “soil health”.
Processing the Data
This is a relatively new field of study with emerging technology, and researchers are learning how to best use drones to provide fast, affordable and useful surveys. Some of the research approaches are broad-scale, but as time passes, more specific surveys will be designed. Researchers are continuing to develop algorithms and methodology for collecting and analyzing the airborne data being collected by the various specific sensors placed on drones. Phenotyping, spatial analysis and vegetation indices are all being used to interpret the aerial data being collected per specific surveys. The aerial data is then compared to on-ground tests and observations to make sure the researchers understand the results, and using that understanding, re-calibrate the instruments on board the drone as needed.
So What Can Drones Do
For Turfgrass Managers? Current agricultural research, some of which includes turfgrass applications, uses drones to identify, monitor and study the following:
- Nutrient Status
- Water Stress
- Disease Incidence
- Weed Infestation
- Chemical and Nutrient Applications
- Asset Tracking, Management and Mapping
- Turf Inventory Management
- Species Classification
- Crop Yield > Growth, Biomass, Canopy Density
- Monitoring of Invasive Grasses and Vegetation, Especially in Remote Areas
When the day comes that turfgrass managers are able to use drone technology on their fields, courses and lawns, they could more precisely apply chemicals, fertilizers, water and other materials, not to mention more efficient allocation of manpower and assets to give turfgrass exactly what it needs for optimum health and productivity. This approach is known as Precision Agriculture and has the goal of ensuring profitability, providing sustainability and protecting the environment.
Currently, drones with a good camera can be used by turfgrass managers to view obvious, real time conditions of their turf, but from an entirely different bird’s eye view perspective. Here are some of the ways drones could be used today:
- Aerial photos of complexes, courses, fields, farms and client lawns
- Before and after photos of projects
- Use photos as sales promotion
- Monitor “grow-in” rates
- Monitor sod harvesting
- Track and monitor fertilizer and pesticide applications
- Monitor research plots
- Irrigation system mapping and “as-built” documentation
- Monitor health and level of irrigation ponds
- Drought stress mapping
- Flood plain mapping
- Identify weak turf
- Document storm damage
- Monitor storm damage clean-up
- Map persistent disease incident locations
- Monitor tree health and identify weak upper limbs or trunks not easily seen
The possible uses for drone photography are endless!
Flying into the Future
It’s an exciting time and we’re just at the beginning of this new field of drone-aided data collection. Agricultural research using drones will only increase and as it does, applications will be developed for turfgrass managers to become more efficient with their manpower and budgets. Certainly it won’t take researchers, engineers and designers long to produce newer generations of drones that will do even more tasks accurately, in less time and at a lower cost than conventional methods. With future drone sales predicted to increase exponentially, they may very well become as ubiquitous as the lawn mower. The big question is…. Will drones prove as important a game changer as any innovation to date to move turfgrass management efficiency forward? Hummmm…. only time will tell!
READ THE ISSUE