Purdue University is positioning itself to be a leader in precision agriculture through unmanned aerial vehicle research and education.
When aviation professor Mike Leasure was growing up, he never thought his two passions — airplanes and farming — would come together to the extent that it has.
“In 1975, I was disking corn stalks and flying model airplanes on the weekends,” he said. “It’s unbelievable that these two things came together for a career for me.”
Leasure discussed UAV technology Nov. 5 at the annual Indiana Seed Trade Association luncheon. He is spearheading the aviation department’s move to offer more courses about UAVs.
Purdue faculty members have been designing, constructing, testing and field deploying UAVs for 10 years. Each year, the machines have become more capable and efficient.
“We’re just starting to teach this at Purdue,” Leasure said. “We’re going to have seven courses including ones on construction, regulation, safety and privacy.”
Denver Lopp, professor of aviation technology at Purdue, shared his insight, as well.
“There are a lot of universities focusing on military UAVs,” he said. “We’ve focused heavily on ag. You can look at nitrogen requirements, track soybean rust and monitor pests. It’s a scouting machine. You could walk 2,000 acres, but it would take a while.”
Lopp said that Indiana could be a leader in precision agriculture technology.
He referenced a study that showed more than 100,000 new jobs related to UAVs will be created by 2025. Most of these jobs will be agriculture-related.
“Indiana is ag driven,” he said. “That’s why Purdue is getting involved and wants to be a leader. We’re going to expand research and our ability to research. We have some great students to get us there.”
Why aren’t we there yet? Mainly due to safety concerns with aircraft certifications, Lopp said.
Although there are challenges in making UAVs an easily accessible tool for farmers, he expects progress to be made.
“Twenty years ago, we didn’t have an iPhone 6,” he said. “Pretty soon you’ll be able to operate UAVs from your smartphone.
“With a tremendous amount of data, you can look at what hybrids worked and what didn’t. You might be able to make decisions based off of that data.”
John Larimer, president of Lords Seed LLC in Howe, hires six scouts during the summer. He envisions using a combination of human and UAV scouts in the future.
“We don’t use UAVs yet, but we’re interested,” he said. “Our biggest concerns are how practical it is, how user-friendly it is and the learning curve. I think I want to be an early adapter, but not an innovator.”