DRONES: a new perspective on precision ag

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Chances are you’ll soon see them on your own farm, right next to the GPS auto-steer and electronic bin monitors.

Folks with a passion for flying have long played with remote-control airplanes. But today’s incarnation can be controlled through your smartphone, is much more work-worthy and, some would argue, stealthy. So while the sky’s the limit for the application of drone technology in agriculture, it’s not without its challenges.

Drone technology and the implications for Canadian farmers were discussed at the 10th Annual Bayer CropScience Ag Issues Forum, held February 2015 in Phoenix, AZ. Providing an on-the-ground perspective for this in-the-air topic was Matthew Rohlik, integrated solutions manager for Haug Implement Company in Renville, MN , and founder of Midwest Aerial Technologies, which specializes in aerial surveys and helping industries, like agriculture, apply the data collected to management decisions.

Rohlik explained to the crowd of agribusiness reporters from across North America that there are two main types of drone, one for observation and the other for scouting. They come in either a fixed wing or helicopter style. Although observation drones are equipped with a high-resolution camera, they are inexpensive compared to the scouting type that incorporate a thermal or infrared camera for more detailed analysis of what lies within a bird’s-eye view of your farm.

Infrared diagnostics can help spot crop problems before they spread. Drones can also survey a lot of ground very efficiently. According to Rohlik, an agronomist could scout 4,000 acres in six hours with the help of a drone.

And drones are useful in farming operations of all sizes, he adds: “from the guy who has 40 acres of vegetable crops all the way up to someone with 30,000 acres, and everybody in between.”

“It’s for guys who are thinking outside the box. They say: ‘What can I do to improve my bottom line? Yes, it costs me four dollars an acre, or whatever it may be, but if that returns me 15 bushels, I’ve justified this cost. It’s improved my bottom line. I have a better in-season look at what’s happening on my farm.'”

But it’s not only crop watching where drones come in handy. Rohlik, who has his own farm, sends a drone up every day to get a visual of his cattle. Add in the infrared component, and animals with high temperatures can be identified before they show any visual symptoms of sickness.

If farmers are interested in drone technology, a good place to start is with an observation drone, said Rohlik. “It’s cheap technology, and you can see what it can do for you. If it helps make one input decision on a thousand-acre farm, you’ve justified it.”

The number of Canadian farmers using drone technology is increasing. Just one example is Antler Valley Farm, near Red Deer, AB, a fifth-generation operation. Family member Wade McAllister was a helicopter pilot before coming home to farm full-time with his brother, Scott, and father, Wayne. So naturally drone technology caught his eye early and, after spotting impressive cropland views on Twitter, he tracked down a Calgary dealership that sold Phantom observation drones. Now he wouldn’t be without one.

“The number one thing is inspecting crops,” McAllister says. “It’s a pretty good tool to see what kind of crop you have out there as you prepare marketing plans for the fall. You can easily see a full quarter, take a snapshot of it, see where the low areas are and spot colour changes. You can also predict where some drainage is needed for following years.” »

Antler Valley Farm did some test strips with a new Bayer product now going through the registration process, and the drone gave a dramatic picture of the results. “You could see the difference like night and day,” said McAllister. “From the road, you could kind of tell, but once you got an aerial perspective, it just changed everything.”

The McAllisters took the drone along when they went to check some cropland coming up for rent. “From the road it didn’t look that bad. But the view from the air, totally changed our mind, so we didn’t even bother putting in a bid.”

Agri-Trend founder and CE O, Rob Saik, prides himself on being at the forefront of new technology, and an early proponent of precision agriculture. His firm is looking to incorporate drone use in its field-mapping services.

“It’s about resolution,” said Saik. “The closer you get to the ground, the better the resolution; and it’s about being able to get underneath clouds. If we’re going to program a sprayer to do sectional shut-off for fungicides, we need to have a map generated by a sensor. But if there’s cloud cover, we can’t get it with satellites.”

With commercial drone technology come increased risk and liability issues, so the need for training on legal drone use is important. “We just completed our first ground school with about a dozen of our coaches and other interested people,” said Saik. “The Sky Scout Certification School was put on by Mark Hovdestad of the RCM P, and was the first of its type (in Canada).”

There’s no doubt that drones are adding a new dimension to the realm of precision agriculture — and quickly, too. “It’s like the yield monitor system in 1994,” said Rohlik. “Everybody’s saying: What do I do with this? How am I going to handle it?

“Now, how can we take this application and see some ROI on individual farms. When we get to that point, it’s going to get adopted. It’s not going to be the 15-year climb like it was with yield monitors; it’s probably going to be a three-year climb to get to that point,” he explains. “The technology, from what I saw two years ago when I first started dabbling in it, to today, is phenomenal.” FF

A brave new drone world

The fact that farmers can get them for under $2,000 makes drones very accessible. But before you fire one up, consider some of the very real issues and challenges brought forward by the popularity of these flying devices.

For starters, there are obvious safety concerns. Airports, in particular, are nervous about UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) flying in close proximity to manned aircraft, and there are plenty of regional airports and private airstrips dotting the Canadian landscape — enough to make this a real issue in rural communities.

Overall, Canada seems to have its ducks in a slightly straighter row than the U.S. when it comes to established parameters for legal drone use.

In this country, Transport Canada regulates the use of UAVs, outlines when permissions to fly are needed (and exemptions to those permissions) and, in some cases, requires operators to get a special flight operations certificate. It also outlines safe operation guidelines, such as flying during daylight hours only, not losing sight of the drone, respecting the privacy of others and not flying within 9 km of an airport, heliport or aerodrome.

But there are other, less obvious challenges to think about. For example, Matthew Rohlik, founder of Midwest Aerial Technologies and presenter at the 10th Annual Bayer CropScience Ag Issues Forum in February 2015, posed this interesting question to a crowd of agri-business reporters: “What property rights do you have above the ground?” He suggested that future debates about air rights might look like current debates about mineral rights.

Other things to think about include:

Data ownership Does the farmer own the data taken from his field? It’s a question faced by the whole field of crop mapping and aerial surveys.

Data collect ion Accurate maps require stitching together many field pictures, which means handling a huge amount of data.

Data lang uage The lack of a standardized digital language means systems can vary greatly. What kinds of files are best for transferring drone images?