Drones and Agriculture

This image shows you the layering of color images of plant vigor (red is healthy, orange to yellow is stressed, and blue is nothing) and actual detailed visual imagery.  Click on the image and you can zoom in on a trouble spot and it will show you detailed photo imagery of the spot.

Like it or not, drones have arrived and are here to stay.  While most of the recent publicity around drone technology has been negative (think firefighters suspending efforts fighting fires due to drones filming California wildfires), aerial imagery provided by drones offers a component of precision agriculture never seen before on a wide scale basis.  Whether you’re a Pest Control Advisor, Crop Advisor, Consultant, Food Safety Professional, Grower or Harvesting Manager, looking at a crop from the ground or doing crop measurements will never give you the perspective that can be achieved with aerial imagery.  While boots on the ground will never be replaced, it is a co-management tool that allows those folks to more effectively communicate crop needs using visual imagery and exact GPS coordinates.  Layered images allow the user to drill down from viewing colored areas of concern to actual aerial snapshots of the area.  Multiple images taken of growing areas and viewed over time greatly enhance the collaboration between growers, suppliers, and advisors.

Drones come in all shapes and sizes and can cost from below $5 to millions of dollars.  The most commonly used are ultra-light miniature fixed wing aircraft with a fixed wing span of around three feet, or a quadcopter.  Some require hand launching, and others can take-off and land without a manual launch assist.  These aircraft, when equipped with technologically advanced software and remote sensing, permit the operator to plan actual and simulated flights.  The aircraft use GPS and a wireless WI-FI connection to remain in contact with the programmed flight path.   Point and shoot type cameras placed within the body of the aircraft are controlled by the software and literally take hundreds of individual photos of the production area of interest.  The individual photos must later be composed into a single mosaic image using different software.  Single images produced by different types of cameras used to fly over the same area can be layered one on  top of another,   allowing a the computer user to scroll through and view the different spectrum images.

Now, for a reasonable cost, a farmer can measure plant stress and health, validate farming practices and spot potential issues before they happen.  The upside is substantial – potentially reducing fertilizer inputs, reducing pesticide use, improving irrigation efficiencies, and providing an effective avenue for continuous improvement.  Besides plant health and vigor, the images can show irrigation patterns, runoff issues, slope, and weed intrusion.  The imagery provides near precision direction for locating distressed plant areas, soil and water inefficiencies, and other opportunities by highlighting these areas within the image.  Growers and crop monitoring personnel can use their smart phone and GPS coordinates provided by the imagery to walk directly to areas of concern. Imagery can also be used to demonstrate a grower’s prudent use of agricultural water, defend against further reductions in water use, and serve as a validation of farming practices and continuous improvement. The benefit of being able to identify troubled areas at a single viewing is that it gives the grower a directed, purposeful approach to more effective, efficient farming. This imagery will provide the grower and shipper the necessary data and imagery to effectively co-manage resource use and farming practices towards a goal of the best possible crop to feed a growing population, with a sustainable use of resources and minimal impact on wildlife and the environment.

by Kris Gavin and Walt Armijo