Eye in the sky beginning to pry

The history of agricultural aviation often lags a few steps behind military aviation as retired military craft find a second home in agriculture.

The same is true with unmanned aerial vehicle technology.

So it should come as no surprise that the latest drone to enter the agricultural field comes from Israel.

The Hermes 450 is capable of taking imagery of 50,000 acres per hour with a one-inch pixel size of the ground.

The plane is used in surveillance operations by governments of all stripes around the globe.

The Hermes 450’s fit in precision agriculture is its ability to gather a large volume of data over a broad landscape in a short period of time. Consider these specifications:

  • payload: 400 pounds
  • length: 20 feet
  • wingspan: 34 feet, five inches
  • gross weight: 992 pounds
  • power plant: 52 horsepower Wankel rotary gasoline
  • maximum speed: 109 m.p.h.
  • scan speed: 92 m.p.h.
  • range: 186 miles
  • endurance: 30 hours
  • ceiling: 18,000 feet
  • rate of climb: 900 feet per minute
  • developer: Elbit Systems of Haifa, Israel
  • cost: US$2 million

Each flight is designed to cover a footprint four miles by 40 miles.

The big drone is still governed by Federal Aviation Agency regulations that require all drones to operate only within line of sight of the pilot. As a result, the Hermes must be flown in formation with a manned chase aircraft, which partially negates its cost effectiveness.

To further complicate matters, there are only six FAA approved drone test sites in the United States, one of which happens to be near Hillsboro, North Dakota.

North Dakota State University tested the Hermes at a number of sites in 2016, logging 100,000 acres at altitudes of 4,000 feet, 6,000 feet and 8,000 feet.

NDSU agricultural engineer John Nowatzki said in an email that there’s no comparison between operating a small drone and a large heavy drone like the Hermes.

“The Hermes requires three people to operate from the ground control station,” Nowatzki said.

“Our private sector partner for our project is Elbit. They own and operate the UAV.”

The Wankel rotary is notorious for high fuel consumption and noise, but Nowatzki said these have not proven to be significant factors.

NDSU has been using two roto-copters and two small fixed wing drone to collect data on corn, soybeans and wheat. However, the copters fly for only 15 minutes and the fixed wing for only an hour. The Hermes can stay up from dawn to dusk if weather conditions are right.

“Elbit successfully demonstrated data collection flights at various altitudes,” Nowatzki wrote.

“Project personnel used small and large UAVs to collect multispectral, infrared, hyperspectral and thermal imagery. The large UAV was used to collect imagery of the entire flight corridor during designated periods in May, June, July and August. The large UAV collected a total of 4.18 TB of imagery.

“The small UAVs were used to collect imagery up to an altitude of 400 feet. NDSU personnel collected ground data over selected fields within the large UAV flight corridor, including active optical sensor data and visual observations.”

Nowatzki said the imagery has been analyzed to conduct crop stand counts, in-season nitrogen management in corn and wheat, identify iron deficiency in soybeans and quantify hail damage in corn.

The data collected with the large UAV at high altitudes up to 8,000 feet proved to be usable and valuable.

Project personnel will correlate NDVI values from imagery and ground sensors with actual yields when the yield data is available this winter. The total amount of imagery and derivate from the imagery is approximately 10 TB.

“There is likely a great future for a large UAV such as the Hermes 45,” he said.

“Issues that need further research include agronomic deliverables to farmers, timely image collection, transfer, processing and delivery to end users, the farmers.”

The Hermes is scheduled to fly fields in North Dakota this summer near Williston and Carrington.

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