Agriculture is one of the biggest industry in the world. Technology is continuously changing how we grow food, allowing farms to become more efficient, using less hours of labour to complete the same job as it would have taken just 5-10 years ago.
Where do Drones fit into agriculture, and why should farmers be lining up to get one?
1) A NEW PERSPECTIVE
The amount of information you can learn about your crops, simply by getting an aerial perspective is huge - and that is even without using the specialized near-infrared sensors that can tell you exponentially more!
Areas affected by disease, pests, nutrient leeching, and water stress (among other ailments) can easily be identified using NDVI analysis. But by using a drone such as the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, equipped with a standard RGB camera (red, green, blue) will often give you a much better understanding of your crops current status than just looking at it from the sideline. Driving an ATV through a crop can also be damaging, and if it can be avoided unless absolutely necessary, why not?
Exhibit A: An NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) map of a 3/4 section of Potatoes in Southern Manitoba. The numbers represent Near Infrared (NIR) reflectance values of the crops. Different crops absorb and reflect different amount of NIR light. Potatoes have a very high spectral reflectance compared to a crop like corn. These numbers become valuable when comparing fields of potatoes to other fields of potatoes - not so much when comparing to other crop types.
2) THE PRICE IS RIGHT
It has only been in the past couple of years that UAV technology has come down in price such that it has become a necessity for farmers to buy them. DJI is the largest consumer UAV manufacturer in the world, and makes an unparalleled product! These drones can be purchased now for as little as $1500. For a toy, that might seem expensive, but these drones are NOT toys! These are finely tuned field scouting machines, and should be viewed as another tool in the toolbox.
If you want to get even more serious about the data you are getting, you could invest in a DJI Inspire 1 or Matrice 100 multi-rotor UAV outfitted with a multispectral camera such as the Sentera Single or Dual NIR/RGB sensor; or you could go with a fixed wing UAV such as the AgEagle RX60 or Rx48. Check out our blog post about Fixed Wing vs. Multi-rotor UAVs to learn more about these great investments for your operation. One thing I will say here though, is that the price tag on a fixed wing is usually around 5-10x as expensive as the DJI Phantom series drones. The reason for this, is that they are commercial grade, highly specialized equipment. If you are not interested in forking out $10000 up to $50000 for these data hogs, you might consider hiring a service, such as what M3 Aerial Productions offers (servicing Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Atlantic Canada), to gather your data for you.
The data that is gathered from UAVs can often be integrated well with the other equipment on your farm, such as your spreaders and seeders. NDVI maps of your fields can be processed to create variable rate prescription zone maps that can be loaded right into your equipment. This side of the technology is just beginning to catch up to the rest of the drone industry, as methods for processing the huge amounts of data these things can gather improve.
The UAVs that you can buy these days can allow you to do some pretty amazing things. You are no longer limited to just taking a pretty picture.
Determine where, and exactly how deep you need to dig a trench in order to properly drain that area in your field that always seems to have standing water.
Certain drone technology can allow you to not only gather the NDVI crop health analysis data, but they can also be used to generate highly accurate digital elevation models. Propeller Aeropoints are a revolutionary, disruptive technology that is hitting the surveying scene. They are GPS-enabled Ground Control Points (GCPs). These tools, combined with drones are VERY POWERFUL. Imagine a fine mesh net laid over your entire field, form fitting with the contours of the terrain. Every one of the intersections of that mesh net represents a point in the data gathered by the drone, providing data with 3-5cm of vertical accuracy. This is a powerful tool, providing data that until recently has not been as accurate, or as easy to obtain as is now possible by using UAV technology.
Sure, it's new - and new can sometimes be unsettling. But knowing more about your field will only help you towards growing a better crop. If you can make decisions that end up saving a few thousand dollars because of the data that is now in your hands, why are you still waiting?
For more information about UAVs in Agriculture, read this cover story of the Grainews fall edition, featuring an interview of Matthew Johnson, CEO of M3 Aerial Productions.
It's plain to see that robotics are changing the way things are done. Drones are just another tool in the toolbox, and when compared to some of the other tools, their price is really quite manageable!