On a perfect day in southern Georgia the weather is not windy enough for kite flying, but exactly right for launching a blimp. Glen Ritchie, doctoral candidate and research professional in UGA’s department of crop and soil sciences, inflates and then teases a mail order, helium-filled balloon out of what is joking called the “blimp port”. The “blimp port” is a garage at the C. M. Stripling Irrigation Research Park in Camilla, part of UGA’s Coastal Plain Experiment Station.
A field of flowering canola bows to a gentle wind as Ritchie and park superintendent Rad Yager rig the white blimp. The canola is a colorful anomaly, Ritchie explains. The field will later be devoted to cotton. Cotton research is what Ritchie knows well. Underneath the blimp, Ritchie attaches a plastic container filled with cameras and electronics to tie lines. The cameras, near infrared and conventional, supply Ritchie with different information about the plants’ ability to reflect light. This precisely informs growers when to irrigate—no guess work and no wasted water.
“Yeah—it’s Tupperware,” Ritchie confirms as he tightens a slip knot tethering the container. He shopped spy shops, kitchenwares and hobby shops for the components needed to perfect his idea. “We tried to think of something more,” Ritchie pauses, seeking the right
For under $1,500, Ritchie developed his idea. It’s an easy guess that Ritchie is not a spy shop habitué. But he is the resourceful son of northwestern dairy farmers, who grew their own livestock feed and respected the impact of drought cycles and irrigation.
The researcher wears khakis and a crisp tan shirt, complete with the logo for the Georgia Cotton Commission which funded Ritchie’s research. “Water was such a big issue,” says Ritchie, recalling his Idaho farm experience. “When you don’t get rain, water’s always on the front of your mind.”
Colleagues in Tifton had developed an ingenious center pivot irrigation system that waters different parts of the field at different rates. Ritchie, meanwhile, worked to determine precise irrigation needs. “We decided to evaluate remote sensing as a method to schedule
Ritchie squints while gently releasing the blimp, which soars then stops 300 feet above the field. Within minutes, the camera lenses click via a transmitter Ritchie controls, gathering important data about the crop’s moisture and stress levels in a 4-acre area. “I needed a ham [radio] license to legally operate the little video transmitter, so Kristina (Ritchie’s wife) and I studied for a month and [each] took the test and passed,” says Ritchie.
For decades, scientists have known that plants under stress change in both color and growth patterns. Stress influences plants ability to reflect light. The camera lenses beneath the blimp capture this information within seconds, and Ritchie then downloads the
The images supplied by the blimp’s cameras reveal application needs, too. “So there’s less chemical used,” Ritchie explains. “I saw this as something that I could actually see applicable to production agriculture. And water [conservation] seemed like a solution because it’s something everyone uses.”
Vaulting to Celebrity
The two men chuckle over how the blimp inspires rubber-necking. Passersby hit their brakes during the blimp’s inaugural appearance in the summer of 2004. Soon the Associated Press got wind of the blimp, too. A July 2004 article was picked up nationally.
“Yes,” Ritchie says, his eyes on the transmitter. “My parents read about it in Rexburg, Idaho.”
Since first soaring several hundred feet above the research fields, the blimp generated stories in Cotton Farming magazine, and on the front pages of Florida and Georgia newspapers. Yager keeps copies of these and other media mentions in a manila file. (Flying the balloon any higher than 300 feet requires clearances from air traffic controllers.)
In an agricultural area, farmers easily recognized the potential. Farmers who could ill afford to hire helicopter or plane pilots to obtain aerial data were fascinated by a reasonably low-tech, non-intimidating solution posed by a blimp.
There was also the undeniable fact that the blimp held appeal. There was something grin-inducing and original about a blimp bobbing over an open field beneath a cotton-puff filled Georgia sky.
A Magnificent Man and His Flying Machine
Ritchie, the Idaho transplant, is a parent of four children ages 1 to 7. He has ever-deepening ties to the South and to the agricultural tradition, and agricultural research will be his life’s work. He moved to Tifton four years ago for doctoral study at UGA, bringing his family with him in a rented truck his father helped drive. He and his family have
Ritchie patiently explains to everyone—including 5-year-old daughter Erin—about his fascinating contraption and how it saves water.
Water scarcity is an increasing worry for the nation’s agricultural industry, swiftly becoming a defining issue. The state of Georgia monitors agricultural water usage. “Most of the farmers have flow meters installed on their pumps now, so the state’s able to see how much water they use,” Ritchie says. “There are pumping costs, too. Running a several ton center pivot around the field would cost you some money…
just the cost of the pivot is usually about $150,000.” So when Ritchie went to a school in Tifton “for show and tell,” he brought the blimp along to the wide-eyed children’s amazement. He recounted purchasing the blimp for $500 over the Internet. He compared the remote control system to those used for toy airplanes. Afterward, small hands tugged on the lines and felt the blimp pullback. “The demo was pretty handson,” Ritchie quips. “The kids enjoyed the blimp.” So do adults, he adds, smiling.
Ritchie can no longer guess how many times he’s secured the tie lines, adjusted the cameras and launched the blimp until it ascends 50 feet and higher. Ritchie’s spirits climb, too. His dissertation is finished and the wind is at his back. “We can save some water,” Ritchie says. No one leaves the field or the blimp behind after many pictures are taken, for it’s the sort of day for being out in the firmament. And it doesn’t hurt the mood at all that three adults are playing with some important electronic gadgetry as one bloated white balloon, filled with more promise than helium, bobsand sways against the cerulean sky.
In Fields of Canola Gold… “An inch of rain water on an acre of ground represents 25,000 gallons of water. Looking at a field, you can save substantial water. The next step, assuming I’m still here after the summer, is we’re going to look at combining estimates of growth for irrigation with plant growth regulators,”says Ritchie (top left). At right: the remote control system used to activate the cameras. Above, Ritchie with Ivey Griner, field crop manager, standing midst thecanola at the experimental field.