Biological Systems Engineering


Date of this Version



Chavez, J. L., A. F. Torres-Rua, W. E. Woldt, H. Zhang, C. Robertson, G. W. Marek, D. Wang, D. M. Heeren, S. Taghvaeian, and C. M. U. Neale 2020. A decade of unmanned aerial systems in irrigated agriculture in the Western U.S. Applied Engineering in Agriculture 36(4): 423-436, doi: 10.13031/aea.13941


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Several research institutes, laboratories, academic programs, and service companies around the United States have been developing programs to utilize small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) as an instrument to improve the efficiency of in-field water and agronomical management. This article describes a decade of efforts on research and development efforts focused on UAS technologies and methodologies developed for irrigation management, including the evolution of aircraft and sensors in contrast to data from satellites. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations for UAS operation in agriculture have been synthesized along with proposed modifications to enhance UAS contributions to irrigated agriculture. Although it is feasible to use sUAS technology to produce maps of actual crop coefficients, actual crop evapotranspiration, and soil water deficits, for irrigation management, the technology and regulations need to evolve further to facilitate a successful wide adoption and application. Improvements and standards are needed in terms of cameras’ spectral (bands) ranges, radiometric resolutions and associated calibrations, fuel/power technology for longer missions, better imagery processing software, and easier FAA approval of higher altitudes flight missions among other issues. Furthermore, the sUAS technology would play a larger role in irrigated agriculture when integrating multi-scale data (sUAS, groundbased or proximal, satellite) and soil water sensors is addressed, including the need for advances on processing large amounts of data from multiple and different sources, and integration into scientific irrigation scheduling (SIS) systems for convenience of decision making. Desirable technological innovations, and features of the next generation of UAS platforms, sensors, software, and methods for irrigated agriculture, are discussed.