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Improving farm management with unmanned aviation

DRI and AboveNV complete successful test flights above Winnemucca Farms

RENO – Using fixed-wing and rotor-driven aircraft, a team of research scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) have successfully tested the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to support large-scale, multi-crop agricultural needs in Nevada.

“Our initial flights prove this new technology can provide farm personnel with high-quality images and data which will help with critical day-to-day management and operations,” explained Lynn Fenstermaker, Ph.D., a DRI research professor, UAS expert and project director for Nevada’s NASA EPSCoR and Space Grant Programs.

In collaboration with aviation engineers from AboveNV, a leading aerial survey and UAS services company based in Reno, Fenstermaker’s research team last month completed more than 20, 40-minute test flights above Winnemucca Farms, Inc., one of Nevada’s largest agricultural producers. Test flights were performed at an average altitude of 300-feet above ground level over several of the farms’ more than 16,000 acres of potato, wheat, peas, and alfalfa crops.

UASlaunchDRI researchers also performed ground verification operations during each of the UAS test flights to assess geometric accuracy of the images and crop conditions to enable comparison between images and environmental stresses that impact crop health such as heat and water stress, plant disease, and pest infestation.

“We are very pleased to be part of this project,” said Sam Routson, Winnemucca Farms’ chief administrative officer. “These high-resolution GIS images will give our staff a time-specific snapshot of crop health, informing us of whether a plant is overwatered or underwatered, whether there’s an insect infestation, and better understanding the effects of our herbicides or pesticides and fertilizer applications.”

Supported by a WaterStart competititive innovation grant and Nevada’s Knowledge Fund, this project is working to advance the research capabilities of UAS, while at the same time showcasing how UAS commericial applications can help the agricultural industry improve crop management ,irrigation efficiencies and combat ongoing drought conditions.

AboveNV is also developing unmanned aircraft systems that can be easily launched, landed, and controlled by farm staff. AboveNV would provide these turnkey systems to farms at an afforadable price. This would allow farmers and managers to collect data at critical times during the growing season. The collected image data would then be sent to AboveNV for image processing, analysis, and generation of usable products.

“By showcasing how these aircraft and the associated data tools can help one of Nevada’s largest producers, we hope to stimulate additional interest from across the state,” said Kirk Ellern, president of AboveNV. “The emergent UAS industry in our state has significant potential to help farmers and ranchers, environmental managers, state and federal agency staff, and many more.”

This is one of three UAS-industry collaborative projects that DRI scientists have underway with Knowledge Fund and GOED (Governor’s Office of Economic Development) support.

“This is another really exciting example of how our higher education system is helping Nevada’s traditional, rural industries test and adopt new technologies and connect with Nevada-based startup companies,” said Chris Walach, Ph.D., Director of Operations for the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) and the FAA-designated Nevada UAS Test Site. “And… none of this would be possible without the ongoing support of the FAA. With our FAA UAS Test Site designation we are continuing to lead in UAS application development, successful test flights, and in creating innovative solutions for a variety of industries.”



The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a world leader in environmental sciences through the application of knowledge and technologies to improve people’s lives throughout Nevada and the world. Learn more at

AboveNV is an aerial survey & services company focused on the sciences required for land management in the Great Basin. They provide high resolution data collection & analysis using a variety of leading edge technologies. Learn more at

The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS): On behalf of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS), a non-profit corporation, leads the growth of the Nevada Autonomous Vehicle Industry through business teaming relationships, collaborating with primary research institutions on UAS research and development, and enhancing the Nevada UAS Industry knowledge base in order to attract new and permanent business and create jobs in the State of Nevada. Learn more at

Media contact:
Justin Broglio
Communications Officer,
Desert Research Institute
Ph: (775) 673-7610

Photo Caption: Rob Dunbar from AboveNV self launches the company’s autonomous fixed wing platform specifically designed for precision agriculture and industrial mapping in extremely hostile environments. Credit: DRI

Photo Caption: DRI research scientist and GIS expert Tim Minor conducts a ground validation measurement during last month’s UAS test flight at Winnemucca Farms. Credit: DRI  

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