Insect researcher: Drones will help feed growing population

Farm Forum

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) – A college professor who studies insects said on September 23 that unmanned aircraft can help grow better crops and produce more food, but it’s going to take more cooperation among researchers to pull it off.

Kansas State entomology professor Brian McCornack said the use of drones in agriculture will be an important application because the world’s population is projected to increase by 2 billion people in the next 30 years and there will be “the same sliver of land” to produce food.

“Access to resources is limited. Not only land, but water and energy,” McCornack told attendees at the final day of an annual unmanned aircraft conference.

The UAS Summit and Expo began nine years ago as a regional event but has expanded to include some of the top companies in the industry, including defense contractors Northrup Grumman and General Atomics. North Dakota has one of six sites in the nation testing drones for commercial use and also is home to the nation’s first unmanned aircraft tech park, Grand Sky. The president of Grand Sky, Tom Swoyer Jr., gave the keynote address.

Precision agriculture has become a favorite topic at the expo, partly because it’s expected to be the No. 1 industry for drone use. McCornack outlined several possible farming applications, including outfitting unmanned aircraft with the robotic capabilities to collect insect samples or set traps.

“We as researchers have to wrap our minds around it,” McCornack said. “For me, personally, this is not only about the pests we have here, but trying to anticipate what’s going to happen in the future with invasive species. Invasive species can completely change the cropping system.”

McCornack told the group that making an entomologist part of a drone discussion shows not only how far the industry has advanced, but how many different disciplines it entails.

Afterward, he said earlier research on unmanned aircraft for farming may not have been complete because it didn’t include experts in entomology, plant pathology, fertility and cropping systems, to name a few.

“This is what we do, unfortunately, really well in academia,” McCornack said in an interview. “We get into our specialist mode and we want to be so refined in our particular system that we lose sight of the 20 other variables that someone else wants to contribute.”

North Dakota State University professor John Nowatzki, who is spearheading a research project that would use a large drone to monitor crop conditions from high altitudes, said he’s happy that McCornack emphasized collaboration.

“If we’re going to do anything with UAVs in agriculture, we’re going to have to have ag scientists with us,” Nowatzki said. “That’s the key.”