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Area co-op is pilot site for autonomous drone

Staff writer

Mid-Kansas Coop, headquartered in Moundridge, with an elevator in Peabody, is one of three sites in the U.S. that has been selected for a test run of an autonomous drone to gather information on crop conditions and other data. The drone is autonomous, which means it operates without a human pilot.

The creator and owner, American Robotics, received a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration for its use.

MKC received the drone on Friday. It was placed three-and-a-half miles west of Moundridge in a cornfield on the Flickner Innovation Farm. It will be programmed to fly within a two-mile radius.

Kenny Vadakin, a drone systems engineer for American Robotics, was at the site Monday preparing the drone for launch. It is stored in a 5-foot-by-5-foot waterproof container and is being programmed to emerge and fly when conditions are right.

Vadakin said electric lines have been run to the box. Antennas placed on a 50-foot tall tower will link it to the Internet.

The red drone, named Scout, with black arms and legs, will rise to capture images and data and then download them directly to a web-based computer or phone. It then will return to its base.

Vadakin will be there for several weeks with a hand control to observe the drone’s operation and make sure the Scout system is working properly.

The Scout will automatically run through a safety checklist and check the weather before launch. The wind should be less than 35 miles per hour, and the sky should be clear or very overcast to ensure consistent photos, Vadakin said.

Each flight will be about 30 minutes long, and the Scout will take off to gather data every hour-and-a-half.

The operation will be closely monitored at the company’s headquarters near Boston.

Ross Benisch of MKC is excited about the information the drone could provide for farmers.

“It will allow us to monitor fields remotely to detect drought stress, such as insects, weeds, diseases, poor plant stands, and water issues,” he said.

The drone has a thermal camera, so it could be used at night to monitor water use by irrigation systems.

Benisch said the data would produce a crop health map that will reveal problems better than the naked eye. It will be uploaded to be viewed online.

The drone will fly high, up to 400 feet, in its first run. If it spots trouble with a crop, it will fly over problem areas at a lower level.

Benisch said the $25,000 Scout can be used to monitor any crops but will be especially useful for corn. The crop’s height often limits ground monitoring.

Farmer Ray Flickner works with Kansas State University and farm service agencies to try new things, so it was natural to use his farm as a pilot site, Benisch said. Neighboring farmers will be notified when the drone will fly.

Benisch is hopeful the test will be successful and will lead the FAA to expand its coverage area. A farmer could purchase one for his own use, or several could get together to use the Scout to monitor their crops.

“If a drone could cover one-fourth of a county, the fee would be minimal,” Benisch said.

The drone will fly in the same airspace as crop dusters. The box has an acoustic detection system that can sense an incoming aircraft more than two miles away. This forces the drone to descend, according to Vadakin.

“It has great potential,” Benisch said. “It probably will be used more wide-scale in a few years.”

Vadakin confirmed that many more Scout drones would be distributed throughout the United States by year’s end. In addition to agriculture, it could be useful in transportation, mining, and technology.

Last modified May 12, 2021

 

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