These drones are strictly for peaceful purposes

How much to rent that quarter? Felix Weber says a view from above can help decide.

Weber is an Ontario consulting agronomist who uses a Swiss-made Swinglet CAM unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for a variety of uses from locating old drainage tiles to assessing crop-damage claims, as well as for in-season crop scouting.

“The UAV quantifies things we already know,” he says. “I find the UAV helps me give my clients better advice.”

Weber says the infrared images show how much of the crop is affected and where the stress is worst. We still need to ground-truth, go there and check the problem, but we have target areas for our scouting,” he says. “I walked a client’s field where construction traffic had caused soil compaction and thought it didn’t look too bad. When we flew the field, we could see the real extent of the damage and the pattern. In another field we were able to see the area that wasn’t fertilized because a nozzle was blocked on the floater.”

Another flight showed an apple grower had three trees with blight. The client was able to treat those and save the rest of his orchard from the disease.

Some involved with UAV mapping believe it’s too complicated for non-specialists, but Weber disagrees. “With some training, you can fly this plane if you can manage a mouse,” he says. You program the complete flight on your home computer — setting the area to cover, the altitude, overlap and size of each photo — then upload it to the plane. You launch the plane by hand and you can modify the pattern during the flight. To bring the plane down before the flight plan is done, you just hit one button and it lands at the launch site.

“Everything comes with the plane,” he says. “You do need GIS software, but the processing is relatively simple. And, if a farmer doesn’t want to do it, most consultants can do it quite easily.”

Weber has become the Canadian distributor for the Swinglet and its successor, the eBee. Both have a delta wing less than a metre across with a short fuselage carrying a push propeller instead of a tail. Both are made of compressed Styrofoam, so they’re light. That minimizes risk to a manned aircraft in the event of a collision and helps them land very slowly and safely. “The biggest hazard for these planes is tall structures or trees. But, even when somebody does smash one up, it usually comes apart at the glue lines so they can just glue it back together themselves,” says Weber.

More complex

Steve Myshak and Owen Brown, partners in Isis Geomatics in Lethbridge, see unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as technology farmers can best access through consultants. Their company flies the area, processes the data and delivers it to clients as map layers within hours. They use an eBee and an Aeryon Scout, a quad-copter widely used in law enforcement that costs around $35,000. “Our investment in aircraft and sensors is around $150,000,” says Myshak.

A fixed wing is generally better for mapping a larger area and a multi-rotor or ’copter allows you to look at an object from several angles.

They use true-colour, infrared, thermal and video imaging as well as gas sensors in their surveys. “The data processing isn’t simple. Both Owen and I specialized in remote sensing in our postgraduate work and it took us awhile to learn to interpret all the information we collect from the UAS.”

Isis Geomatics works with individual farmers and with McCains to assess field qualities that affect potato yield and quality. The company hopes to monitor crop N status as a rapid alternative to petiole testing.

Low-cost quad-copter

Rory Paul, of Volt Aerial Robotics in St. Louis, Missouri, has developed a quad-copter for crop scouting, with easy operation and low cost as key features. The UAV price includes software and carries a camera along with a GPS locator. It allows you to get a good look at any part of a field. “With our 12MP camera you can see the individual leaves on plants,” says Paul.

He says you can monitor the video camera and choose some areas more closely. You can map the whole field or just weed patches. Once it’s set up for takeoff, you launch it from your computer.

If the ’copter loses contact with the computer, or detects an issue with any of its systems, it returns to home. In the event it does fall to the ground, it has a radio tracker that links it to your computer so you can find it even if it falls into a crop with a totally closed canopy.

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