As producers increasingly incorporate drones into their farm management plans, players in the tech space are developing new applications.
by Geoff Geddes
A decade ago, the sight of a strange object hovering above your field might have sent you running for the rifle. These days, however, drones offer farmers cutting-edge assistance of the highest calibre.
Also referred to as a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), a drone often contains a camera for taking photos or videos from the air. Users fly drones by remote controls.
“Drone use in agriculture was mostly experimental until about five years ago, when we started seeing sales to farmers,” says Markus Weber, president of LandView Drones in Edmonton, Alta.
Initially, the industry focused on using sensors to map fields through NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index). This method of assessing plant health is based on plant reflectance of near-infrared light.
Increasingly, farmers use drones as “eyes in the sky” to provide a better understanding of their crops’ health by showing them areas of the field that are normally difficult to reach.
“When farmers buy drones, they spend the first few weeks having fun with them,” says Weber. “Then the fun fades, and (producers) start flying (drones) over their crops and seeing many problems they didn’t know they had. It could be a fertility problem, a water-related issue or uneven germination.
“There are so many things you can see clearly from the air but would miss standing on the ground.”
Image is everything
Although relatively new, drones offer a wide array of applications. Some farmers take images before, during and after harvest to analyze crop growth. When processing a crop insurance claim, companies can use drone images to precisely calculate the area of damage.
“Drones can take the guesswork out of these claims, so the farmer is paid what he or she deserves, the insurer is not overpaying, and everyone is happy,” says Andy L. of Alberta Drones in Medicine Hat, Alta.
For farmers looking to sell land or equipment, drones can render 3-D images that can be posted online or used at auction.
As with any emerging technology, drones have limitations. When taking photographs, drones typically must stop in mid-air to avoid taking blurry images. This process can take time if many shots are needed.
Yet, where a technological problem exists, a solution is often available.
“We are now using a specialized camera pod that allows drones to take still images right down to the millimetre level without stopping,” says Melissa Silvernagle, the precision agronomy technical lead with AgraCity Crop & Nutrition Ltd. in Saskatoon, Sask.
“Farmers can fly the drone at 40 kilometres per hour at a height of 50 feet (15 metres) and take 160 to 200 clear images in about 10 minutes. (This work is) something that would take hours without the pod.”
Playing by the rules
Though flying a drone can be fun, it’s not a kite.
Farmers pondering a purchase should remember the relevant Transport Canada regulations. Users, for example, must constantly keep the drone in sight.
“Keeping drones in sight is fairly easy on flat terrain but, when you have hills and trees, it can be a problem,” says Silvernagle.
Pilots of drones that weight 250 grams (8.75 ounces) or more must carry a valid drone pilot certificate and fly only marked and registered drones. Operators flying drones only in uncontrolled airspace – more than 30 metres (100 feet) horizontally from bystanders and never over bystanders – require basic certificates.
Operators who don’t meet all three conditions for basic certificates must pass an advanced exam and a flight review.
“Ground school, like the one offered by LandView Drones, is no longer mandatory, but it is useful for everyone. It would be challenging to pass the online test or flight review without it,” says Andy L. Ground school “takes you through government regulations, air traffic laws, meteorology, navigation and just about anything else you need to be a competent drone pilot.”
Take your best shots
Before you focus too much on the ins and outs of drone use, ask yourself a key question: “Why do I want a drone?”
“It’s critical to figure out what you want to see with a drone and what you plan to do with the images or data you collect,” says Weber.
“If you wish to create maps and apply product based on those maps, you should look at a near-infrared camera or a full multi-spectral system. On the other hand, if you just want a better view of your crops, you might benefit from buying a more portable system with a regular camera and trying it out.”
For livestock producers who want help spotting calves in distress – a task sometimes referred to as “search and rescue for cows” – a thermal camera that detects heat emission can find them. If a calf wanders off, the drone quickly can find a heat source in the middle of a cold field to shorten the search.
Other farmers might opt for a zoomable camera that can read a bison tag from 27 metres (88.56 feet) up without disturbing the animal.
“The drone is the vehicle for carrying a camera, but choosing the right camera is the most important step,” says Weber.
While you must navigate a lot to get your drone efforts off the ground, the results are often worth the trouble.
“We use drones mainly to photograph fields for surface water documenting, to help with planning drainage for water runoff improvements,” says Cameron Hildebrand, the agronomist with H & M Farms in Altona, Man.
He also uses drones for crop scouting, crop treatment comparisons, and photography of equipment operation and bins.
“Drones are helpful in getting a big-picture view of crops,” says Hildebrand. Drone imagery “shows us things like colour variation, nutrition, plant spacing, poor areas, lodging and weed patches.”
Though the prices of drones start around $300, Hildebrand advises budgeting about $2,500 for a good-quality model. Adding a sensor for NDVI mapping will increase the cost.
Other small expenses include UAV liability coverage, ground school tuition, licensing and registration. Extra batteries and/or an inverter in the truck for charging are optional but useful additions.
“It all adds up, but the cost savings from not having to hire an airplane or mapping company to capture field images are significant,” says Hildebrand.
While farmers benefit from drone image capture, some industry players are working on other applications for drones.
“We specialize in aerial application of pesticides with drones,” says Don Campbell, owner of Roga Drone in Elie, Man.
Using drones to spray crops is illegal in Canada. Before that regulation can change, Campbell must satisfy the requirements of the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which regulates pest control products in Canada.
To achieve that end, Campbell and a research scientist plan to conduct trials in 2020. They would involve spray testing with drones and measuring spray drift. This research could serve as a crucial step on the path to legalized drone spraying.
Campbell and his colleagues are encouraged by a recent change to the Canadian Aviation Regulations from Transport Canada. The change allows the flying of multiple drones from one control station and would help farmers spray large areas.
“We see crop spraying with drones as another tool in farmers’ toolboxes,” says Campbell. “This could help them spray fields with irregular shapes that are harder to access, or aid in targeting smaller, specialty crops.
“Such an application for drones was especially relevant (in 2019) when wet conditions (made) it hard to travel in the field with ground sprayers.”
Just as the uses for drones on farm continue to evolve, so do the features of this equipment.
“We’re seeing progress on another front with the battery time issue,” says Andy L. “Five years ago, 15 minutes was a good flight time. Yet now we can get up to 30 minutes as batteries get smarter.
“For example, battery life is shortened in cold conditions, so we now have self-heating batteries to address that problem.”
Sensors on the front, rear, top and bottom of drones detect obstacles and apply the brakes if a collision is imminent. This technology also charts a course around the obstacle if necessary.
Active track is another intriguing option. It allows the drone to automatically follow the user as he or she walks, drives or bikes around the property.
Recent progress has also paved the way for autonomous flight. Drone users can pre-program a flight and give specific instructions to the drone. It can, for example, fly from point A to B at a height of 25 metres (82 feet), and then fly from B to C at a height of 100 metres (328 feet).
“You may tell the drone which way to face or how fast to fly, and off it goes,” says Andy L. “You can even program it to loop back to its starting point when the flight is complete or use a ‘return home’ feature and have it return immediately if an issue arises.”
With all the buzz around drones and the push for continuous improvement, one certainty exists for farmers and other aspiring drone pilots: change is in the air. BF