Ethanol Industry uses UAS for Variety of Applications

From checking on corn fields, to inspecting ethanol plants and rail cars before shipment, farmers and ethanol producers are turning to unmanned aerial systems. The story, "Flying High," appears in the June issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Ann Bailey | May 15, 2016

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) use in the ethanol industry is taking off.

From checking on corn fields, to inspecting ethanol plants, to looking over rail cars before shipment, farmers and ethanol producers increasingly are turning to UAS to improve the efficiencies of their operations.

The UAS industry has been growing rapidly for several years as both companies and private individuals use the systems for a variety of tasks, including industrial surveying, crop monitoring and video photography. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that sales of UAS for commercial purposes will grow from 600,000 this year to 2.7 million by 2020.

Olsson Associates, based in Lincoln, Nebraska, successfully has integrated UAS into its engineering firm’s operations, deploying two Dragonflyer UAS to collect images for its engineering clients. Jonathan Harris, UAS program manager, had been watching the Mesa County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Department operate UAS since 2008, and believed it could provide a valuable service for his own company’s clients. Harris, a hobbyist remote-control aircraft pilot and published photographer, initiated conversations with his company a few years ago and Olsson Associates applied for its 333 exemption in November, 2014, receiving it a year ago.

Section 333 exemptions allow certain UAS operations in the national air space while the FAA completes its UAS rule. An exemption is required for any civil UAS operation that isn’t for hobby or recreational purposes.

“I definitely saw the writing on the wall that it would be a standard piece of equipment in the quiver,” Harris says. Now, he and his colleague Michael Laird regularly operate UAS for inspections for a variety of industries, including ethanol. With 28 offices in seven U.S. states, “we’re pretty well-positioned with our office locations,” Harris says. The firm offers design and consulting services, including land development, urban planning and compliance.

Better Images, Safer
One of the UAS services Olsson Associates offers its Midwest ethanol industry clients is performing aerial spectral work with visible spectrum and thermal infrared cameras mounted on Dragonfly UAS. The cameras provide images of structural problems on vertical structures such as ethanol plant stacks or on pipe racks and the tops of pipelines that are difficult to access with ladders. Using UAS for inspections instead of ladders or scaffolding is safer as well.

The images captured by a visible spectrum camera with zoom capabilities can be streamed to the tablets of as many as 10 ethanol employees on the ground, providing real-time views, Harris says. And, because the plant operator and employees are familiar with the layout and structures at the plant, they can help guide the UAS operators by pinpointing areas to fly over.

Besides providing ethanol plant clients up-to-the-minute images, UAS provide other advantages. The resolution of the images captured by UAS are much higher than what is achieved from manned aircraft, for example, allowing operators to identify details that may not be clearly visible at lower resolutions. “Our limits for manned aviation is comparable to Google Earth,” Harris says.

UAS providers can provide a faster turnaround time, Harris says, noting airborne mapping companies often wait until they have multiple projects in one area before they mobilize a plane. “You might have to wait. We can get there fast and provide the service.”

Another UAS service Olsson Associates offers ethanol industry customers is providing them with volumetric calculations for aggregate piles such as gravel, distillers grains or open grain bins, Harris says. 
Besides operating UAS to perform ethanol plant inspections for its clients, Olsson Associates also inspects manhole covers on loaded ethanol train cars. “We can actually fly down a row of train cars to ensure that each manhole cover is locked and tagged properly,” Harris says, noting that the alternative is for employees to climb up and down train car ladders to check the cars or driving the train through a structure that would have overhead cameras and take photos of the tops of the car.
Yet another role UAS can play in the ethanol industry is in emergency response, Harris says. “In the event of an ethanol fire, we could be on site in a short amount of time and take a live video. We could live stream that video down to first responders on the scene. We can get in there close to the event, where you might have safety offsets that don’t allow access.”

Production Agriculture
Upstream in the ethanol industry supply chain, UAS increasingly are being operated by a variety of people involved in production agriculture, including agronomists, crop consultants and farmers, to check on corn crops during the growing season and to determine the optimal harvest time.

Sentera LLC, a global precision agriculture software, sensors and UAS company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has clients across the Midwest who use the company’s expertise to maximize corn yields while, at the same time, reducing their carbon footprint.

The FAA has approved Sentera to operate UAS for commercial applications, including the agriculture industry. Early detection of crop issues allows farmers to customize fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide applications based on precise data, typically leading to lower inputs and reduced costs, according to Sentera.

Sentera customers fly UAS that can be equipped with advanced technologies such as RGB (specialized color imagery), thermal imagery or multispectral cameras over corn fields. They then can analyze the collected images to make data-driven decisions about production challenges, such as drowned-out acres, insect damage and fertilizer shortages.

“Our system allows our customers to make a data driven decision in the field,” says Kris Poulson, Sentera vice president of agriculture. “It doesn’t require Internet.” Instead, Sentera’s AgVault software allows the user to pop the data card out of the UAS, and into a computer. The card also is compatible with some mobile devices. Once the card is installed, Sentera customers can look at the data quickly and determine how to improve their crop’s health, he says. Users also can share their critical data easily with their team or consultants, thus expanding the circle of impact.

Sentera’s goal is to allow farmers to maximize yield potential while minimizing crop inputs, such as fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide, Poulson says. Because the imagery can pinpoint where the crop problem is, farmers can apply the inputs to that specific area, rather than to the entire field.

“We view it as a tool that comes out at the appropriate time, like a hammer does, like a crescent wrench does when you need it,” Poulson says. Widespread adoption of UAS captured imagery will come quickly to agriculture he says. “In the near future, it’s going to be very common place in the agricultural industry.”

Ethanol Application
At Little Sioux Corn Processors in Marcus, Iowa, General Manager Steve Roe, hired a Sioux City, Iowa, company to take videos of his plant for its 2015 open house. The video by Full Effect Productions includes a birds’ eye view of the ethanol plant and the city of Marcus taken by a camera mounted on a UAS.

Little Sioux Corn Processors officials were pleased with the promotional video which is featured on its website, so they asked Full Effect Productions to take another video showing an overhead view of the plant and the surrounding area. The video is useful when contractors want to visualize a specific location at which they are going to do a job, Roe says. “We just send them the video and they can look, just zoom right down on it and they can see.”

At the Olsson Associates engineering firm, Harris sees the day coming when ethanol companies will have their own UAS. “I think it’s a technology that currently kind of requires a specialist, but it’s going to transition to something where plants have UAS of their own on site,” he says.

 “There are still going to be opportunities for more complex tasks like mapping for engineering firms such as Olsson Associates, but for basic inspections, it is going to translate into an in-house application,” Harris says. He looks forward to providing his firms’ services to more clients in the ethanol industry. “Working with ethanol producers has been very rewarding,” he says. “We’re comfortable with those types of facilities.”

Author: Ann Bailey
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]