Unmanned Aircraft Systems testing on St. Mary’s farm

Managing Editor

BUSHWOOD, Md. (Aug. 18, 2015) — After hovering the Iris quadcopter over the driveway at Jamie Raley’s farm in St. Mary’s County for a few seconds, Ronney Miller, pilot and range safety officer for the University of Maryland’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, eager to demonstrate the aircraft’s speed and abilities, sent it darting off in the sky over Raley’s soybean field.
As a small group from the test site watch ed the copter buzz around the air with hummingbird control, Raley broke the silence.
“I gotta get me one of these things,” he said, garnering a few chuckles.
Raley’s comment epitomized the interest from the farm community in using unmanned aircrafts in agriculture applications.
Though Raley claims he’s too old to heavily invest in many new precision agriculture products, he said he sees their value in making farms operate better and volunteered his farm to the university’s test site to carry out research.
The first flights over Raley’s farm were on July 31. Like most other farmers, Raley, who is also the St. Mary’s County Farm Bureau president, said he has concerns about privacy and property rights issues surrounding the use of unmanned aircrafts but saw a lot of benefit in being part of the test site’s research.
“I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to bring students here to do their tests,” Raley said. “It’ll benefit all of agriculture, not just here in Maryland.”
The test site, operating as part of the university’s College of Engineering and based at the St. Mary’s County Regional Airport in California, Md., officially opened last November to serve as a hub to focus the capabilities of the people and infrastructure in Southern Maryland, the university, government, and industry to address issues related to UAS technology and policy.
A month later, at a Crisfield airport on the Eastern Shore, the test site conducted its first flight operations with the Talon 240, a 140-pound UAS with a 20-foot wingspan, proving the operational processes and procedures required to fly larger UAS.
The test site is also part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, with Virginia Tech and Rutgers, one of six Federal Aviation Administration UAS test sites, and will help the FAA integrate UAS into the national airspace.
With FAA registered flight numbers on the aircrafts, the researchers are permitted to fly below an altitude of 200 feet to conduct test flights.
Tony Pucciarella, director of operations for the test site, said the group currently has about 20 research and commercial testing projects involving UAS. So far on Raley’s farm, researchers have taken data on noise made by the systems and conducted performance testing on some of the aircrafts. 
“Now we’re in full swing,” Pucciarella said. “Right now it’s about letting everybody know we’re open and can handle testing.”
Many of the projects at the test site are outside the agricultural realm. One is studying the potential for emergency delivery of medical supplies across the Chesapeake Bay, another studies boulder movement in the Appalacian mountains and another is using unmanned systems to monitor forest fires that emerge in the United States and South America.
Within agriculture, Pucciarella said they expect to do field mapping on Raley’s farm and bring in agronomists from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to help in making crop management recommendations to help, as Raley says, “get the best production I can with what I have.”
While crop monitoring is one of the more likely immediate uses, Pucciarella said there is potential in using the aircrafts in applying crop protection products.
Pucciarella said Raley’s farm is just about ideal being close to the test site’s headquarters and having open fields with varied crop production.
“This is such a great site,” he said.