Dec 27, 2022
Drone research at Virginia Tech nationally recognized

Virginia Tech faculty have been nationally honored for a multistate project that helped accelerate the use of unmanned aircraft systems in agriculture and natural resources.

Several faculty members in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are among a national group of university researchers awarded the 2022 Excellence in Multistate Research Award for an ongoing project that has helped speed drone adoption in agricultural systems.

The award-winning project, “Research and Extension for Unmanned Aircraft

Virginia Tech faculty are collaborating with institutions across the U.S. to advance the use of drones in agriculture. Photo by Sam Dean for Virginia Tech.

Systems in U.S. Agriculture and Natural Resources,” evaluates and identifies the most reliable, cost-effective and user-friendly drone platforms and sensors for monitoring and managing stressors in agriculture and natural resources, according to a news release. To maximize the accuracy of the data collected, project members developed hardware, software and detailed protocols for calibrating and using drones.

Virginia Tech’s participating scientists in the recently renewed project that began in 2016 are:

  • Maria Balota, project chair and a professor in the School and Plant and Environmental Sciences and Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center;
  • Daniel Fuka, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering;
  • Cully Hession, a professor and graduate program director in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering; and
  • Joseph Oakes, the superintendent of the Eastern Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

“The contributions of this group to the multistate effort were on large-scale water quality monitoring and high-throughput phenotyping of various crops and varieties by drone imaging,” Balota said in the release. “Our multidisciplinary research and outreach have helped overcome barriers and accelerate broader use of drones. By efficiently collecting large amounts of data, drones can help guide better decision making, greater advances in plant and animal breeding, and more profitable and sustainable management.”

Virginia Tech is the leading institution for the first year of the renewed project, which runs through October 2023.

When the project was conceived in 2016, researchers faced multiple challenges to acquire and utilize an unmanned aircraft system. Before major changes in Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, research programs needed licensed pilots, medically certified visual observers and government authorization permitting flight in only specified areas, Balota said in the release.

Strict regulations governed the use of unmanned aircraft systems for non-research applications including education, Virginia Cooperative Extension and private use. Against this backdrop, the project was created to leverage strengths that could advance the field.

Since the project’s start, project members have shared their knowledge in many ways, including through fact sheets, Extension workshops, programs and materials, peer-reviewed publications, and at regional, national, and international conferences.

Top photo: Virginia Tech has received national recognition for its research on ag drones. Photo by Sam Dean for Virginia Tech.


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