Drones earning their keep on the farm

Farmers like Brandon Gibb are making profitable use of their cheap and easy-to-use unmanned aerial vehicles

From counting plants per square foot to measuring grain loss behind the combine, farmers spend a lot of time close to the ground.

Sometimes, however, the best farm decisions are aided by a perspective from higher up.

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in agriculture are making headlines, and for a couple of thousand dollars — and some remote control practice — any farmer can now get a view of his land that was once reserved for those with access to an airplane.

Brandon Gibb, who farms near Pincher Creek, purchased a quadcopter for around $1,500 this spring. His system includes a high-definition camera that can take video or still pictures and a GPS that guides the drone back to its starting position.

In mid-June, Gibb’s fields were being hit by a deluge of rain and once the rain stopped, he had plans for his drone.

“After the big rain I’ll spend the whole day flying around to see where there’s not enough run-off and what areas we can work on in the fall,” said Gibb.

As a farmer in an irrigation district, Gibb knows the value of bringing water to the land, but now he says he needs to concentrate on moving it away. Low spots that drown out or cannot be seeded in time cost money, so he is considering surface and tile drainage to help the water flow through rather than sit on his land.

Gibb discovered the benefits of a view from above while doing a university internship in Michigan.

“We’d rent a helicopter twice a year to get aerial imagery. It was expensive, but it paid for itself,” he said.

To Gibb, a bird’s-eye view is worth $1,000 per minute and a drone is cheaper than a biannual helicopter ride.

  • From the Manitoba Co-operator: Got the drone, but how about your permit to fly it?

As a drone operator zips the device over the field, the video shows up on a hand-held display, revealing things missed by simply walking through the field.

“If you have plugged irrigation nozzles you’ll see striping in your field,” explained Gibb. “You can’t see it from the ground, but from the air it sticks out like a sore thumb.”

He has even used the drone-derived images to show his irrigation district that their pipeline left a ridge up to 24 inches high that was impeding the natural drainage in his field.

“They’ve agreed to come in and fix it at their cost,” said Gibb, adding that the drone paid for itself 10 times over in one flight.

He said he hopes the aerial images can help him more effectively apply soil amendments to improve the quality and uniformity of his land.

“If we can see a pattern through the growing season then we can go in there and figure out what’s going on and try to even up the field without spending a lot of money on variable-rate applications.”

It took some practice for Gibb to master operating the drone and he suggests new users practise in an open field without trees or buildings. His UAV comes with some handy user-friendly features, such as an automatic return to home if the battery is dying or the drone gets out of range.

If Gibb is on the do-it-yourself end of the UAV spectrum, then Owen Brown of Isis Geomatics in Lethbridge is on the other.

Brown and business partner Steve Myshak started the company in 2011 with the goal to gather and distil data for both the agriculture and energy sectors. They have spent at least a hundred times what Gibb has on UAVs and sensing technology. With their combined expertise in remote sensing and surveying, Brown and Myshak provide their clients not only with raw images but also usable data.

“Farmers can have their own drones, but what do you do with the data afterwards?” said Brown. “That’s where our expertise lies — in extracting information from data after we’ve collected it.”

Use real-time kinematic (RTK) navigation — a more precise form of GPS — to produce survey-grade drainage maps that can be used for installing tile drainage. The best drainage map Isis Geomatics can create would cost a little over $11 per acre, said Brown. Other data they can provide include plant health mapping, and both cattle and silage inventories for beef producers.

Isis Geomatics is fully certified by Transport Canada to operate anywhere in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

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