It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a … drone?

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Drones Take Off for Valley Land Management

Gaining a new perspective from the RGV’s flying research assistants, farm hands, and safety monitors

We have likely all heard about them by now. With the availability of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), also known as drones, big names like UPS, Amazon, and Domino’s are tinkering with UAS with the goal of improving efficiency. Though there are some concerns regarding privacy and safety, drones can also be a valuable tool to use on the land we have around us, providing useful data from our environment. Here in parts of the Rio Grande Valley, we are already using this technology as well as researching new applications for these drones. Whether it is for mapping crops, counting fish, or spring break monitoring, drones are providing a perspective we have never had — until now.

One up and coming application for drones has the potential to make a major economic difference here in South Texas. In farming and ranching, the use of drones with special infrared or heat-sensing cameras can offer a perspective that RGV farmers and ranchers have never seen — virtually everything. Imagine having 10,000 acres of land to manage. By the time pests or disease reach the edge of your field, issues are likely already widespread. Drones can offer a bird’s eye view of Valley farmland, and by pinpointing problem areas, they will not only increase the efficiency of farming but will also help us to be stewards of the environment for future generations. With this new technology, farmers can focus their treatment of pesticides and fertilizer and reduce the amount of chemicals and nutrients they are putting into the environment. Using infrared imagery, farmers can monitor the health of their crops as they watch for insects, fungus, and disease and can then take this information and apply it to their tractors for focused treatments. Even water application can be more precise, ultimately saving farmers time and money. Ranchers, too, can use drones to better manage their land. Some ranchers are even trying to herd cattle with them.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, will soon play a major role in meeting the challenges of feeding a growing global population,” said Dr. Juan Enciso, a Texas A&M AgriLife researcher in Weslaco. “One day, flying a UAV will be a routine task an agricultural producer performs on a regular basis to help him efficiently maintain his crops, improve yields and optimize resources, especially water.” One of the biggest applications for drones in the delta is their unique ability monitor drought conditions. Though these conditions can be monitored with other means, UAS are quickly becoming the most efficient way to keep us informed. With water always a luxury in the delta, farmers no longer have to guess when their crops and soils have reached drought stress conditions. They can see it.

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 10.12.57 AMAside from their potential to revolutionize how we feed the world, drones are also being used in the delta for saving the environment. In Cameron County and along the coast, drones are being used to monitor environmental conditions that affect our community. Last year, County Marine Agent Tony Reisinger, who works with Cameron County through the Texas Sea Grant and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, used drones along with scientists from UTRGV and TAMUCC to monitor red tide conditions that affected the Lower Laguna Madre.  

“Right now, we track red tide movement with satellite flyovers,” he said. “Not only is that very expensive, but data collection is sometimes limited by cloud cover. We currently determine red tide concentrations by manually taking hundreds of water samples to measure red tide cell concentrations. A multi-spectral equipped UAV could quickly do all that from the air in a fraction of the time and expense if concentrations can be correlated with color change.”

Red tide conditions along South Padre Island severely influence the ecology and wildlife that makes our environment unique. Drone monitoring research is currently being conducted to be able to not only monitor these conditions, but even further to measure the ability to count the number of fish that have died along the shore. These feats are accomplished by programming correct algorithms that can automatically distinguish and measure images and video that are obtained from surveying the land by way of the sky. Right here in the RGV, we are currently on the cusp of that research.

One last application of drones you may not have seen, although they likely saw you, occurred at spring break this year on South Padre Island. Not only can they capture breathtaking photos of the blue green bay, but these drones have also become more common in use by law enforcement as a safety measure for all the visitors in the area. UAS were not only used for monitoring people in the water, they are also beneficial in monitoring large crowds and can pinpoint where assistance may be needed in the event of an emergency. Though not yet widely used, even now, drones are capable of delivering lifesaving equipment such as a personal flotation device to a drowning person or even lifesaving medication to a patient in need.

In addition to what we currently see for the future of drones, like taking photos, delivering packages, and just flying for fun, these new ecological and environmental applications are just a few of the promising uses for this rapidly advancing technology. Through further research taking place right here in the RGV, we will likely continue to see increased efficiency in ranch and farmland management, which could provide a major beneficial impact to our local economy. As technology continues to improve exponentially, keep your eye on the sky. With so much potential, who knows what they will think of next?

 

photo captions:

One of two UAVs the researchers used in their red tide flyover, a 3D Robotics RTF X8+ Multicopter, recorded multispectral and thermal images.  

 

Tony Reisinger, Cameron County Coastal and Marine Resources Agent for Texas Sea Grant and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, left, and Dr. Jinha Jung, assistant professor of Engineering at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, review the images from UAV overflights of a red tide off South Padre Island on Sept. 20. In the background is Dr. Anjin Chang, a postdoctoral research associate in Jung’s laboratory, who assisted with the UAV launches.