Mike Barrett was trying to find a practical use for a pricey toy when he decided to fly his drone over his feedlot to count his cattle.
That was when his purchase paid off.
“With the average gain of the cattle, we easily paid for the drone in the first year that we counted that way,” said the Strathmore-area farmer.
“There’s no better way of doing it. We wouldn’t count them any other way now. That’s how dramatic the difference was — we’re never going back to the old way.”
Like many farmers, Barrett had initially bought his $4,000 DJI Phantom 3 Pro drone — or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — to take pictures of his equipment in action during harvest. That ‘fun factor’ is typically the initial draw for farmers, said Markus Weber, president of LandView Drones.
“Most people take their drones up, get a few pictures, and then post all over social media for the first week or two,” said Weber. “But it’s not just a pretty picture. If it’s in the hands of a farmer or an agronomist who’s been working in that field, it lets you see things that you wouldn’t see from the ground.”
Barrett did have some luck using the drone for crop scouting on his family’s 21,500-acre grain operation, but it wasn’t until he put it to work on their 6,700-head feedlot four years ago that it really paid off.
Prior to that, Barrett and his auditors would manually count his cattle by running them through the pens during inventory. It was not a fun job, and it stressed the cows.
“It was probably two or three days before they recovered from the stress of getting counted,” said Barrett, adding their rate of daily gain dropped during those three days.
But after playing around with the drone on his cropland, he wondered if there might be a better way to count his cattle too. There was.
Using his entry-level drone and its high-definition camera, Barrett creates a flight plan for his cattle pen using DroneDeploy — an easy-to-use aerial mapping software — and then sends his drone over his yard to build a map of over 400 high-resolution photos. Once the pictures are stitched together and the map is completed (usually by the next morning), Barrett prints it off and marks his cattle off with a pencil.
From start to finish, his actual hands-on work takes less than an hour.
“It’s almost stress free for the cattle. The cattle don’t even know there’s a drone going over,” said Barrett. “We’ll always use a drone to count them from now on.”
From image to information
It almost seems too good to be true. But it’s really that easy, said Weber.
“It’s not complex at all. I could teach the whole process inside of an hour,” said Weber, who hosts two-day training sessions for farmers across the province (the bulk of which cover regulations for flying the drones).
The challenging bit is turning the images into usable information.
“You’re only halfway there once you create the map,” said Weber. “You need to think about what you want to do with the information it gives you.”
That starts with choosing the right sensor. Most drones come equipped with red-green-blue (RGB) sensors — essentially just high-definition cameras that will take pictures of the field. Those sensors are useful if you want to get some aerial shots of your land to count livestock, scout for crop disease, monitor plant emergence, determine how much of a field has been flooded out — the list goes on.
That simple piece of equipment is what Steven Nelson uses on his 2,300-acre grain farm southeast of Camrose. Like Barrett, Nelson bought his $2,500 DJI Phantom 4 to take a few pictures and do a little crop scouting just over a year ago.
“It seemed like a good way to get a bird’s eye view of parts of the field you often don’t see when you’re scouting,” said Nelson.
Last spring, Nelson knew parts of his field were pretty wet. He figured it wasn’t too bad — but the photos he took from his drone told a different story. Almost 25 acres on one quarter section were under water. So rather than planting fababeans (a notoriously long-season crop), Nelson planted canola instead and managed to get a crop off.
“It made a big difference in our seeding plans,” he said. “It’s amazing what getting a few hundred feet off the ground will tell you about your field.”
For even more detailed information, near-infrared sensors can see things that aren’t visible to the naked eye, such as areas where plants are stressed.
“If you have the right sensor, it will let you see more than the human eye can see,” said Weber. “To me, this is the start of precision agriculture for a lot of people. ”
The ‘secret sauce’
Once you’ve determined what kind of data you hope to gather and have picked out the right sensor for your needs, you’ll need to find a UAV that can carry it.
“These are robots — not remote-controlled aircrafts. They’re way beyond that,” said Weber.
In agriculture, there are generally two different types of drones to choose from — fixed wing and quadcopters. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Fixed-wing UAVs have a longer battery life, so they can cover a larger acreage (around 320 acres in just under an hour). But they cost $20,000 or so, and takeoffs and landings can be tricky — “it’s basically a controlled crash.”
Quadcopters (like the DJI Phantom models) are easy to use and relatively inexpensive at under $10,000. But their battery life is much lower than their fixed-wing counterparts, so they can only cover about 160 acres in just under 30 minutes.
But “all of that is pretty useless until you find a way to make it work,” Weber added. “Software is ultimately the secret sauce that brings this all together.”
The first piece of software you’ll need is flight control. That’s typically an app on a mobile device, like DroneDeploy, that tells the UAV where you want it to fly. “The apps cost between $0 and $15, so try them all — there will be something that works for you,” said Weber.
Then you need to stitch all of the pictures you take into a map, which is typically done on a desktop computer with cloud-based software such as Maps Made Easy or DroneDeploy. And finally, you need some way to analyze the data you get. Barrett, for instance, has been toying with software that counts bacterial cultures to make counting his cattle easier than doing it with a pen and paper. And on the crop side, software like Agribotix can take information gathered by drones and turn it into actionable precision ag prescriptions.
“Growers can then use it for their management decisions — either confirming management or double-checking management,” said Weber. “This really is magic.”
But while the drones themselves are easy to use, as is the software, the regulations can make flying a drone more hassle than it’s worth.
“It is highly regulated. If it’s for any commercial purposes, you can’t even fly a drone over your own property without having an SFOC (special flight operations certificate),” said Barrett.
“On a smaller farm, it would be pretty tough to justify that. It would make way more sense to bring someone in.”
The process of applying for an SFOC can be “pretty daunting” for a farmer, Nelson added. Drones may be fun to fly, but ultimately, they’re aerial vehicles that share the same airspace as planes, helicopters, and gliders.
In addition to understanding the regulations around drone usage (including how high you can fly, what kinds of weather conditions you can fly in, and how far from roads and buildings you need to be), you need to take a training program like Weber’s, develop an emergency plan, and receive your restricted operator certificate with aeronautical qualification, among other things.
“My SFOC has over 100 conditions I have to follow,” said Nelson.
For that reason, many farmers are leaving the piloting to the professionals.
“It’s fun to be able to do it yourself and go out whenever you want. But productivity is a factor,” said Nelson.
“At $5 an acre to bring someone in, I’ll buy something and try to make it work myself. But if I could hire somebody for $1.50 an acre, my time is probably better spent elsewhere.”
Even so, as the price of drones comes down and producers find more practical applications for them, Nelson suspects that they will become standard equipment on more and more Canadian farms.
“Drones are constantly getting better, and I think that as the technology progresses, there will be lots of uses for them on the farm,” said Nelson.
“It’s more important than it used to be to make decisions based on really good data. Using a drone helps you make those better decisions. For more detailed information, a drone is the way to go.”
Over the next five to 10 years, sensors will be able to detect fusarium developing in the field before any symptoms are visible, pinpoint whether it’s wild oats or Canada thistle infesting a crop, or even determine if an animal is sick (something Barrett is particularly interested in).
“Those things are coming, and you’ll be able to detect it earlier than you could see if you were walking that field,” said Weber.
“That’s why these drones need to be on the farm where they’re more easily deployed by the people who need them.”