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VOL. 129 | NO. 125 | Friday, June 27, 2014

Drones Could Help Mississippi Farm Industry

CLAY CHANDLER | The Clarion-Ledger

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – The applications for drones have softened, shifting from machines of war to whirlybirds that can capture incredible aerial photos of any event under the sun.

The newest possibility mixes that magic with cost-savings that could prove revolutionary for Mississippi's agricultural industry.

Every part of the business can benefit from the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, said David Shaw, Mississippi State University's vice president for research and economic development.

"We're right on the front end of this," said Shaw, whose background includes ag science and ag economics.

Research, crop monitoring, even early disease detection will advance with UAV technology.

How it works is simple: A UAV carrying a high-definition camera can cover and document a lot of ground cheaper and quicker than a traditional airplane or someone either on foot or on an ATV.

"It means you have eyes on the crop," Shaw said. "That's invaluable. You can understand if there's a disease problem, drought issue, an insect infestation, nutrient deficiency. Those things are easily detected, because the color of the crop will change."

Spotting the problems is easy. Isolating where they originate and preventing them from spreading to an entire field is not.

"For example, you could have a nitrogen deficiency in one area, but not in another," Shaw said.

A UAV can do that. Jenner Jordan, who owns Oxford-based SkyMaster Photography, said his aerial photography systems can cover a 500-acre field, shoot photos and video and have the results to the client in three hours.

If that's not fast enough, first person-view software Jordan has will allow a client to watch in real time the flight over a field, even if the client isn't on site.

The FPV software is only a few months old, "and it's already proven itself a game-changer," Jordan said.

Jordan, a photographer by trade, founded SkyMasters earlier this year, shortly after his dad gave him a UAV for Christmas. A lot of his business to this point has been photographing weddings and fraternity and sorority parties.

That will change soon, he said. Surveying crops and potential sites for energy production companies is the future.

"Because those jobs last longer than a night or a weekend," Jordan said.

Mississippi State has started formulating how to best apply UAVs to its research capabilities, Shaw said. Already, cameras with filters that can detect fungus or disease that haven't yet discolored a crop have been developed.

"You can be much more proactive," Shaw said. "And with what we call precision ag, it also allows you to manage a field in a specific location. Some of the research can blow your mind as far as the quality and how small the package is."

The great unknown for the convergence of the agriculture and UAV industry is what kind of regulations the Federal Aviation Administration will eventually impose. The rules are due later this year.

Currently, Jordan said the only restrictions are that the UAV, no matter how it's being used, can't fly higher than 400 feet and has to remain in the operator's peripheral vision. Everything else goes.

"So I'm planning and strategizing my business waiting on the FAA," Jordan said. "But the possibilities are incredible."

Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, www.clarionledger.com

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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