Machinery Chatter

Trimble Launches Pilotless Scouting Aircraft

By Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Trimble's fixed wing UAV has a wingspan of about 40 inches, weighs about 5 1/2 pounds and can cruise at 50 mph. It can photograph about 500 acres in less than an hour. (Photo courtesy of Trimble)

Trimble this month added to the squadron of unmanned aerial systems (UAVs) waiting to take off to scout American farm fields. The Trimble UX5 Aerial Imaging Solution looks like a stealth fighter and promises to be one of the fastest and smartest aircraft in the group.

However, since the FAA has not yet issued regulations on commercial UAV use, all those aircraft might be waiting awhile. I know, I know, a lot of UAVs are already flying over farms. Let's just say those flights are in a regulatory grey space now. Manufacturers and resellers are waiting for the bureaucratic fog to lift before their products can really take off. More on that later.

Trimble named its slick new fixed-wing aircraft the UX5, but the Aerial Imaging Solution part of its name indicates it, "is a full solution, not just a plane," says Stephanie Spiller, a Trimble technical solutions manager. A Yuma 2 rugged tablet, for instance, serves as a ground control station. Sophisticated image processing software and other hardware -- including a launcher -- come with the package.

With the software, a pilot will be able to plot a flight pattern for the UX5, launch it and retrieve it without having to touch a joystick. If an obstacle gets in the way, the pilot will be able to nudge it left or right or put it into a holding pattern. But once it gets into the air, aircraft will be mostly independent.

With a wingspan of about 40-inches, the UX5 can zip along at 50 mph. At that speed, it can cover more than 500 acres in a 50-minute flight, providing images with 2-inch resolution.

The on-board camera can be outfitted to shoot near infrared images, which are ideal for providing information for vegetation indexes to measure crop health, weed and pest infestation, even mineral deficiencies. Images from the UX5 also can generate topographical maps for land leveling and drainage applications. They can help locate cattle and assess the state of pastures.

A glance at aerial images will provide much information, but for details, you have to drill deeper. Trimble software automatically processes aerial images "without requiring specialized photogrammetry knowledge or experience," according to Trimble literature.

Trimble engineers understand that flying a sophisticated unmanned aircraft is not a skill set in the typical farmer's tool chest. So the company is offering its resellers a five-day training and certification course so they can educate customers.

All these extras contribute to a price for the package that might make some farmers pause -- $50,999 with an NIR filter for the camera, $49,999 for a full spectrum camera.

"With the price point, I think our first [ag] market will be larger entities" like large farms, crop consultants, application companies, agronomists and seed companies, Spiller says. Other potential users include mining operations, surveyors and the oil and gas industry.

The UX5 was originally designed and built by Gatewing, a Belgian company. Trimble bought Gatewing three years ago and manufacturers the UX5 in Belgium. The aircraft is durable and has a kind of carbon fiber skid plate that will allow it to land on rough surfaces with little damage. If a severe crash does happen, the aircraft has interchangeable parts. To replace the whole foam and carbon fiber frame body would cost about $3,500, Spiller says.

As mentioned earlier, the FAA is still reacting to the explosion in UAVs and is writing rules about their use. First, of course, they have to run some tests. Last month the FAA announced a list of six institutions that will test UAVs over the next few months. The agency will then write rules that will phase in beginning in 2015.

While waiting for final word, Trimble says U.S. potential customers for its UX5 should know it is already legally plying the air space of about a dozen countries.

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