The last big challenge for drones

Advanced technology to spot disease, pest, and health issues early on is already here — 
but using that data still has many challenges

Sure, drones are cool and all. But when it comes to your farm, it’s all about the data they gather — and figuring out how to use all that info.

Markus Weber

“Ultimately, that is what’s going to change the way we manage our crops, by giving us better information about them,” Markus Weber, president of Edmonton-based LandView Drones, said at the recent FarmTech conference.

And for an eye in the sky, it starts with the camera.

“We start with the sensor, and then find the drone that can carry that sensor reliably, and then lastly package in all the software you need to use it effectively,” said Weber, whose company sells drone packages ranging from $2,250 to $17,850 plus GST.

Drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — can, among many other things, measure the size of silage pits, count animals, check crop health, determine yield potential, assess hail damage, and compare crop trial strips.

But more importantly, they offer “a lot more insight into what is going on in that field,” by using near-infrared sensors that provide a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which measures vegetation and, hence, crop health.

“Healthy and unhealthy plants reflect that kind of light differently,” said Weber, adding that near infrared is the “magic sweet spot for plant health.”

“You’re taking in stuff you can’t see with the human eye, and that’s giving you more insight into your crops.”

This takes crop scouting to an entirely different level and using drones in mid-season is perhaps “the biggest use for this thing,” said Weber.

However, that also means employing precision ag techniques since you’ll want to tailor your pesticide, fungicide, or in-crop fertilizer applications to the scouting info from the drone.

“Unfortunately, not a whole lot of people have adopted variable rate wholeheartedly, and I think a big part of that is it’s difficult to manage all that data,” he said. “Data acquisition has been difficult, and I think drones will eventually change that, especially as they get even easier to use.”

Satellite images have their uses, especially at the start and end of the growing season, said Weber. But while they’re low cost and don’t require an operator, their lower-resolution images limit their usefulness mid-season.

“At the start of the season, for variable-rate fertilizer or seeding, satellite is as good as UAV or better,” he said. “For those types of zones, you can establish that with satellite imagery. It’s the same thing with post-harvest. There really isn’t too much to do with a drone there.

“But UAVs excel with all the other stuff that’s happening mid-season.”

Getting very precise

Drones can detect insects and disease early on with astonishing detail.

“If you fly this really low and slow at 40 metres above the ground, it will use the NDVI to count individual plants,” said Weber. “It will give you a population count of the entire quarter section — not an estimate, a count.

“That is especially useful if you’re growing some high-value crops and hybrids where germination is an issue. Double-checking those kinds of things makes a whole lot of sense.”

And when used for crop scouting, drones do a better job. Someone scouting on foot might use a diamond or a W-pattern or, if short on time, go straight to known problem spots.

“That’s what we all do. We need to be fast, but it’s not the same level of insight,” he said. “This lets you get a look at your whole field mid-season, when normally we lose sight of our field when the crops get knee deep. Realistically, we don’t see the back end of our canola mid-season.”

It only takes a couple of minutes to “get you airborne,” he added.

“If you’ve been walking that field for 20 years, that will give you insight. It will get you to places in that field that you didn’t typically go to.”

Though drones with near-infrared sensors have dropped in price, high-end packages (drone, sensor, and software) can come with price tags pushing $20,000. But if used effectively, the payback can justify that expense, said Weber.

“Drones just let you see your farm in a different light. You will see problems you just didn’t know you had before,” he said. “It lets you confirm your own management decisions — and that double-check on equipment and management decisions is worth a lot of money. For one problem you fix with equipment, that’s thousands of dollars right there.”

The caveat

But so far, drone software hasn’t advanced as far as sensors have.

“A lot of the drone hype you’ll hear out there is ‘fly to apply’ or ‘from drone to tractor,’” said Weber.

“Yes, they do create the ability to move data because they’re all cloud-based systems, but there is no software out there right now that is going to effectively, in my opinion, go straight from a GeoTIFF map to an effective prescription.”

That functionality may be coming in the next few years, but it’s not there yet, he added.

“I think we’re going from spotting where the problems are to telling you what that problem is. You’re going to be able to see individual weed species and create a map of them.”

But right now, there are too many factors that go into making an effective prescription.

“Ultimately, this is where there needs to be a person involved,” he said. “Regardless of the fact that there’s data flow, you want a person in there making those decisions. And in a lot of cases, it’s the person who farms the land.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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