Texas Tech University

Documentary Just One Use of Drone Technology in Agricultural Sciences

George Watson

November 14, 2016


Much of the footage in David Weindorf’s film “Between Earth and Sky” was filmed using unmanned aerial vehicles flying across the Alaskan tundra.

Between Earth and Sky
"Between Earth and Sky"

Alaska is the largest state in the 50 United States at more than 660,000 square miles, yet it is the third-least populated with just under 740,000 residents, and almost half of them live in the Anchorage area.

That leaves a lot of territory that has been untouched by the hand of man, a vast wilderness with no residents for hundreds of miles, much less any modern amenities like electricity or running water. That untouched tundra is home, however, to hundreds of species of animals and birds whose survival relies on the environment and all it provides to survive.

Yet, even in a place as remote as the Alaskan wilderness, the threat of climate change exists. It erodes beaches, melts glaciers and disrupts the delicate ecosystem that allows wildlife to survive. Capturing the effects of climate change through soil science is the aim of a research-based documentary produced by a group of Texas Tech researchers that is due out sometime in early 2017.

David Weindorf

"Between Earth and Sky" tells the story of global warming by documenting its effects on arctic soils and ecosystems of Alaska and how it is altering both the wildlife and the residents of the state.

"What we're really excited about is taking this really important scientific topic and breaking it down into something the common person can digest," said David Weindorf, the associate dean for research in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources and the BL. Allen Endowed Chair of Pedology in the Department of Plant & Soil Science, who served as the executive producer of the film.

"We don't want it to be a partisan, politically divisive issue. The science is already settled, we know what's happening. Here is what it means to the common, everyday person."

Traversing the tundra

Getting footage for the documentary wasn't easy. In addition to an absence of modern technology in many places in the state, there's also no easy way to travel to parts of it, either.

Between Earth and Sky

That's where the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) came into play. Using a DJI Inspire UAV mounted with a 4K camera on a gimbal, Weindorf and his team were able to gain footage hundreds of yards away by flying the drone over the area.

"When you see something on the side of a hill you want to get some footage of, it's either us hiking through the woods for two hours to get there, or sitting up on the road and flying the drone up there to catch the rock exposure," Weindorf said. "In other instances we would see something on the tundra, and it's a big, wide-open space. When we saw animals from 500 yards away, we could launch the drone from the road, fly it out there, hover it about 200 feet and get a nice look at what the animals were doing."

Using drones to obtain this footage also allowed the film crew to avoid putting humans in harm's way, or disrupting wildlife by introducing the human element to its surroundings. For instance, Weindorf said, there was one stream they used the UAV to fly over and obtain footage through a large collection of trees and brush on both sides that could have been filmed from a helicopter but that would have been extremely loud and disturbing to wildlife.

Between Earth and Sky

Plus, Weindorf said, the vantage point the drone provides was amazing, being able to zoom in as close as possible or getting a perspective of the wide-open spaces and how climate change has altered it.

And while it would have been nice to be able to take some soil samples, the drones were used exclusively for filming. They required two people to operate it – one to fly the drone and the other to operate the camera.

The team could fly the drones a great distance from their location, but they limited that distance to what safe operating guidelines suggest – always make sure you have it in sight. Weindorf estimated that, even with a spotter trained to keep a visual on the drone at all times, it likely went no further than three-quarters of a mile from where it was launched.

Between Earth and Sky

The footage obtained, Weindorf said, was breathtaking.

"It gives you a vantage point you otherwise wouldn't have had when you're able to fly over a glacier and see those huge cracks down into the ice, or fly over a river and see the rushing rapids and how they are moving boulders down the stream," Weindorf said. "The perspective you get with something like that is totally unique."

The biggest challenge to using the drones, Weindorf said, was the wind. Strong winds occasionally made it very difficult to keep the drone stable, but luckily most of the days spent filming had calm winds, resulting in spectacular footage that he said exceeded expectations. The only times drones were not usable were when the team was filming coastal erosion along the Beaufort Sea, requiring the use of a helicopter.

Between Earth and Sky

Weindorf said the film would be submitted to various film festivals at the end of the summer with hopes it would be picked up. Those festivals begin in January and last throughout the winter and spring, and from there it could be picked up for distribution by PBS or a cable channel such as the Discovery Channel. After that there is the possibility of a national film tour, or it could be added to one of several streaming services such as Hulu or Netflix.

He also presented excerpts of the documentary at the Council of Parties (COP22) international climate talks this month in Marrakech, Morocco. He was nominated for the honor U.S. Department of Agriculture's Climate Change Program Office and invited by the U.S. State Department.

"I'd say the film exceeded expectations," Weindorf said.

Other uses of drones

"Between Earth and Sky" is just one of several examples of UAVs being used by researchers in CASNR.

One example involves studying quail migration by affixing birds with radio transmitters on a collar which can be detected by a UAV utilizing GPS to determine their migratory patterns.

Another potential project would be the frequent phenotyping of cotton fields; using drones with cameras fly over cotton fields to examine cotton bolls for the quality of cotton. Currently that process is done by mounting a camera on a tractor and driving through the fields, but UAVs would allow for more ground to be covered while getting a closer look at the bolls in less time.

"We've got some stuff in the offing, so to speak, but not quite on the scene as of yet," Weindorf said.

Those researchers using UAVs in their research operate the machines themselves, which means they must undergo extensive training and be a certified operator. Though the drone he used for the documentary belongs to the Texas Tech television station KTTZ, CASNR does own at least two drones.

Purchasing and owning a drone for research at Texas Tech involves several steps. Approval for purchasing must got through the Office of Vice President of Research, and the Texas Tech and Lubbock police departments must be notified of the drone's existence. Then, of course, there is the training involved, and the Federal Aviation Administration recently place new rules on owning and operating a UAV, in addition to the rules restricting use within two miles of an airport and flying the drone above 400 feet.

And while it didn't affect his use of drones on the documentary, which was strictly for filming purposes, a big challenge for users of drones is the best way to process the data once it is gathered.

"It's just a voluminous amount of data," Weindorf said. "You might fly for 20 minutes but you could spend 20 hours going through the data collected trying to decipher what is important and what isn't. Finding new and better ways for data interpretation will be a big advance for UAVs."

That, Weindorf said, is being explored by several groups on the engineering side. For researchers in CASNR, the aim is to get the technology into the hands of end-users such agricultural producers who can use it to better their businesses.

"Just because it can be done doesn't mean it's easy to be done," Weindorf said. "Sometimes a farmer might say it's just as easy to go out and take a look at the field himself rather than get the permits, fly the drone out there and interpret the data. We have to make it easy enough for them to be useful."

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