News Article

Mini Helicopter Maps Fields for Precision Ag

By Aces Staff
Apr 25, 2003

April 25, 2003

Urbana - In the war in Iraq, the U.S. military used unmanned vehicles for reconnaissance and scouting. In the war against weeds and insects, University of Illinois researchers are using an unmanned vehicle as well--a miniature helicopter.

The Illinois Laboratory for Agricultural Remote Sensing is using a 4-foot by 3-foot, remote-controlled helicopter to generate maps for precision agriculture. A camera, mounted on the front of the helicopter, takes color and infrared field-map images, said Lei Tian, U of I agricultural engineer.

Farmers can use these maps to determine nitrogen-stress or weed pressure on crops so that application equipment can automatically vary chemicals according to field needs. As a result, farmers save money by using the chemicals more accurately.

“Precision farming was really hot in the nineties but lately it has cooled down,” said Tian. “One of the reasons is that the sensing systems weren't advanced enough yet to create good maps of the fields.”

U of I research aims to remedy that problem.

Before Tian and his colleagues used the miniature helicopter, they relied on satellite images and aerial images taken from planes to create maps. But the drawback was that the image delivery depended upon weather conditions and other uncontrollable factors.

In addition, he said, because timing is critical when studying nitrogen stress or weed infestations, researchers could not rely on satellite or airplane images that might have been generated days, even weeks, before or after the data must be collected.

It was also difficult to find planes and pilots that could be available at the right time to fly over the fields. So that's when they turned to the remote-controlled helicopter.

The advantage of using a remote-controlled helicopter is flexibility, said Tian. The researchers can take pictures anytime they want. The helicopter takes aerial images throughout the growing season and the accuracy of these images is verified with ground equipment.

Presently, Tian is working on an auto-pilot system for the helicopter, but for now two people pilot the unmanned vehicle. One person controls the helicopter and the other person controls the camera.

The auto-pilot will be a one-button system, he added. Simply press the button and the auto-pilot does the rest.

Once the system is refined, Tian envisions companies someday using such equipment to scout fields and create aerial maps for farmers.

The Illinois Laboratory for Agricultural Remote Sensing (ILARS) was established, in part, to engage U.S. agribusinesses in applied remote-sensing research and to develop practical tools in the areas of sensing, image processing and data processing. ILARS is supported by the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research (C-FAR).