Minicopter takes to the sky to monitor crop health for HC&S

PULEHU – A miniature helicopter with high-tech cameras will soon be flying over certain sugar cane fields on Maui to detect problems with irrigation, monitor crop health and conduct scientific research.

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. officials said Thursday that they are beginning a study they hope will improve crop water usage as well as production, which could lead the way to more cost-effective cane growing and uses for future alternative energy.

“With this unit, we’re supposed to be able to see that the cane doesn’t have water even before the eye can see the cane is having problems,” said Mae Nakahata, director of agricultural research and crop control for HC&S.

Normally workers will detect water problems with the drip irrigation system or with the plants when the cane turns yellow, she said. But with the cameras in the sky, problems can be corrected sooner and save the plantation easily thousands of dollars in damage and repairs.

For now, the remotely piloted helicop-ter will probably not be seen by the general public because it will fly only in specific areas of the plantation under study. Those areas are deep in the fields in Maalaea and in Pulehu, Nakahata said.

HC&S has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration in obtaining permits to the fly the craft over its fields, Nakahata said. The FAA has restricted flying to certain areas.

The minihelicopter is produced by Leptron of Golden, Colo. The company focuses on industrial helicopters, according to its website.

From blade tip to blade tip, the copter is 7 feet wide, and it is 15 inches tall. It weighs 11 pounds without its battery and 22 pounds with its battery, said Scott Heath of Leptron.

It also has a payload of 10 pounds and can follow Global Positioning Systems coordinates.

The $65,000 carbon-fiber aircraft is piloted by a person via remote control, with special ground control station software controlled by another person on a computer. The two pilots serve as a safety measure in case one person sees an obstacle or problem while flying.

The helicopter will return to its original takeoff spot in case contact is lost from both the computer and the remote control – another safety measure, said Steve Wilson, Leptron’s general manager.

HC&S will have two trained pilots, Justin Lau, agriculture research and crop control crew chief, and Jason Drogowski, a research associate with the University of Hawaii.

The helicopter will fly about 100 to 300 feet high, well below aircraft flying over Central Maui. It also can fly in winds as high as 65 mph, but it usually will fly in 20 to 25 mph winds, Heath said. It will fly at 3 to 5 mph and during daylight hours, enabling it to take optimum photos.

Heath added that the helicopter can barely be heard or seen a quarter of a mile away.

HC&S has three cameras it can use on the helicopter. One is a high-definition camera. Another is an infrared/thermal-imaging camera that can detect dry irrigation lines, and a third camera is a multispectral device that can analyze ground coverage and the nutritional status of the crops, said Huihui Zhang of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s agricultural research service from California.

The technology is not new. Nakahata said that similar projects have been done in Japan since 2005.

Wilson said that the technology is used by ranchers on the Mainland and also law enforcement.

Research funding for HC&S’ equipment and study comes from the Navy’s Office of Naval Research. The funding of $2 million annually for five years (through 2015) supports crop and technology assessments and evaluation of long-term resource requirements for biomass production.

The USDA is directing the research initiatives.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at