Rise Of The Ag Drones

Already in commercial use throughout Canada and South America, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) promise to revolutionize crop imaging in U.S. agriculture.

March 6, 2013

  •   SenseFly's eBee UAV drone as it images a farmer's field.  SenseFly’s eBee UAV drone as it images a farmer’s field.

In the United States we like to consider ourselves trendsetters in the world of technology. Apple and Microsoft products originated here, we were the first country to walk on the moon and American corporations dominate the global biotech crops market. Yet here we are, lagging far behind the rest of the world when it comes to deploying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) in agricultural operations.

UAV technology is coming however, with a projected date of regulation and approval by the Federal Aviation Administration of September 2015 for commercial proposes, and its time growers and retailers got familiar with what could have major implications for crop imaging and variable-rate application decisions. However, currently if a farmer (as an individual) wants to operate an unmanned aircraft according to the modeling rules, they can do that as long as they stay below 400 feet.

SenseFly, a Switzerland-based manufacturer of both the eBee UAV and the Swinglet CAM, is already selling its digital camera equipped mini-drones to growers and retailers in Canada via Ag Business & Crop Inc., North Perth, ON, and Baptiste Tripard, SenseFly North America sales manager, says that there are many myths about drones among the general population in the US. Chiefly among them that drones are only useful in military and law enforcement information gathering operations.

“It’s very important to remember that with UAVs there are many commercial applications which are in no way related to law enforcement or surveillance,” says Baptiste. “There are many benefits to using UAVs in agriculture like monitoring and controlling your crops during the season, as well as overall environmental benefits such as optimizing water or reducing chemicals, fertilizer and fuel consumption.

SenseFly’s products, weighing in at under 1.5 pounds, come with a 16 MP digital camera powered by a rechargeable lithium polymer battery and can be launched by hand.  Switching between the conventional digital camera and a Near Infrared (NIR) camera is where the magic happens for growers.

The Swinglet CAM and the eBee are capable of taking two types of images: True Color (RGB), which is typical of what one sees from overhead with the naked eye, and False Color Infrared (FCIR), which are used to analyze and distinguish differences between plant health variability and soil moisture.

Additionally, third party software allows users to calculate Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI) from these images, which are, according to SenseFly, a calculated vegetative index which shows growers or crop consultants the variability in plant biomass density and plant health across the field. It picks up subtle differences between plants, soil and water, and allows the operator to more easily define field variability. It’s Aerial Imager NDVI that is most commonly used for geo-referenced management zone creation.

Once management zones are established, they can be used for in-season variable-rate fertilizer or fungicide application corrections, or used later in the fall for zone soil sampling.

According to Baptiste, the 2-D and 3-D maps produced by the eBee and the Swinglet CAM are compatible with most farm management software currently on the market.

SenseFly’s products also come with “eMotion 2” software for flight simulation and planning, and also flight monitoring by receiving in real-time flight information.

Postflight software, also included, allows users to associate each image with its position and orientation and to create geo-tagged images from the drone to obtain global orthomosaics and Digital Elevation Models (DEM), which can be used to plan drainage systems. Geo-referenced orthomosaics are also, according to SenseFly, an excellent tool for empirical data analysis from one season to another.

Still, as financially savvy as growers and ag retailers alike are, many want to know the bottom line: how much will such technology cost to implement?

“Economically, I am no expert on precision ag technology, but it is within the same range of price as other systems that are currently being used by farmers to monitor crops,” says Baptiste. “Aircrafts are price-competitive to monitor crops for 10,000 acre plus operations. For smaller farming operations, UAVs are most cost effective. With the wide range of applications and the frequency this technology can be used, plus there are really no operational or maintenance costs, it’s just a good deal for growers.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t completely take away field walking at this time, but it certainly complements it. With the image there is the possibility of differentiating zones in the field and treating them accordingly,” he adds.

For more information on the FAA’s regulation of UAVs, click here.

Grassi is the Assistant Editor for the CropLife Media Group, including CropLife and CropLife IRON magazines and the PrecisionAg Special Reports. He joined the staff in February 2012.