Field imagery much more just a pretty picture

Overhead imagery can transform how you farm, but it’s essential to choose the right technology — and commit to it

Precision agriculture has had a rough go since it was first conceptualized in the mid-1990s with the advent of the yield monitor. At that point, “variable rate” became part of agriculture’s vocabulary, followed by zone mapping, aerial imagery and a growing list of technologies now available to growers.

Yet there’s still reluctance to rely too much on some of the applications. Yield monitors are standard issue on combines today, and although data are available to create zone maps, not many farmers do.

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This reticence is unusual, to say the least, in an industry that typically snaps up new technology. Is it because precision hasn’t made its case? Do zone maps, soil tests and tracking in-season field conditions only add to costs, without creating revenue-enhancing benefits?

Perhaps one of the more confusing components within the precision ag sphere is the use of aerial or overhead imagery, which has evolved faster than other components within the sector. Yet in spite of the potential for monitoring crop conditions, there’s a widespread feeling they’re just “pretty pictures” that aren’t worth the price.

Country Guide approached four individuals who work with precision ag and asked for their insights into aerial imagery, with some of our discussions branching into other aspects of the technological sector.

Danny Jefferies

Huron Tractor

The arrival of any innovation can have a polarizing effect. A new system can intrigue one group of farmers while generating resistance in another — for any reason. Danny Jefferies sees a similar division with overhead imagery, with one camp thinking the potential is there while others defer on investing, concerned about costs and learning curves.

Jefferies himself believes the potential for aerial imaging is real, and it’s building.

“I can’t show a clear sign of growth, citing specific figures,” says Jefferies, integrated solutions data and agronomy support consultant with Huron Tractor. “However, the cost of overhead imagery has greatly decreased and more people are purchasing it. As with many things, we need to do ‘the try before you buy.’”

Jefferies points out that Huron Tractor conducts demonstrations and proof-of-concept discussions with its clients. To overcome the “pretty pictures” attitude, they’ve added insights to the images, which he agrees is a change from the past when they only provided the image. If the imagery is used to implement a prescription application of a product, they also incorporate a validation process to show that the correct decision was made.

Another polarized perspective is that growers should stabilize their fundamentals first, before incorporating aerial imagery. At the other end is the view of using the imagery to set the fundamentals. Jefferies understands the need for a strong base on which to build but says there are in-season applications where aerial images can help better manage diseases or insects.

“We’ve seen a benefit to site-specific fungicide applications on high biomass areas to prevent disease development, regardless of background fundamentals,” says Jefferies. “Many companies that deliver aerial imagery have drastically simplified the process from a user perspective and will provide the deliverables and insights very quickly with minimal effort on behalf of the user. Ground-truthing is an important step in using aerial imagery, and service providers have improved the deliverable to make this process more directed and quicker to implement.”

With the rapid expansion of the industry and with more systems and technologies seemingly added every day, there is much to learn, first about the available platforms and then about the information they provide. Jefferies calls this “machine-learning” and he maintains it’s where precision ag will help producers the most.

“With machines, our pace of learning is going to be much quicker and likely occur in real time as we perform our field work,” says Jefferies. “There are many secrets to unlock about Mother Nature and understanding and modelling how it affects our crops.”

UAV technology is advancing at an incredible pace, providing imagery and is now capable of spray applications. photo: Courtesy Brandon Yott, A&L Canada Laboratories

Jack Legg

SGS Agriculture and Food

Precision ag offers a considerable amount of information and data, and sifting through that to find the best decisions to be made is likely at the forefront of establishing its value, says Jack Legg, branch manager and agronomist with SGS Agriculture and Food. As logical as it sounds to establish the fundamentals, Legg also believes that there are in-season applications that can derive greater value, including long-term enhancements in a field.

“It’s seems counterintuitive to employ better management before taking a measurement,” says Legg. “However, I would agree that growers should identify the best investment for a particular field at a given point in time. If tile drainage offers the most benefit, then do that first.”

When it comes to the “pretty pictures” charge, Legg concedes that he shares the sentiment but also maintains that remote sensing is the way of monitoring crop production in the future. What impedes its progress today is the cost of driving a drone to a field, creating the imagery and stitching together a comprehensive map (which can be difficult with slower computer processing), analyzing and ground-proofing. The total cost can be higher than the benefit, especially framed in the context of $5 per acre for an image that might not reveal anything that can be managed. In that scenario, satellite imagery may be the more cost-efficient means of fostering better-informed decisions.

“Remote sensing, such as weekly or daily monitoring by inexpensive sources — like satellites — should offer the ability to be far more responsive to crop changes throughout the growing season,” says Legg. “But it usually has to be ground-proofed and managed. If a grower only wants to apply a flat rate of fertilizer across the whole field, why bother capturing yield data or soil sampling intensively? Precision agriculture should mean we’re not managing based on big averages, yet many still do.”

Legg also cites a missing link in the growth of precision agriculture. It’s the emergence of advisors who can extrapolate data and interpret the results for growers. The challenge is that larger-scale growers are managing their farms on a per-acre cost basis to maximize fixed per-acre revenue. Those growers may not want to spend more money on imagery. A smaller grower who owns their own equipment may not see a benefit of adopting new technology and the time to learn how to extract its value.

“That leaves the mid-sized farmer, say an operation of father and son, or a few family members, working a few hundred to a few thousand acres,” explains Legg. “This is who is currently embracing the technology.”

Felix Weber

Ag Business & Crop

Felix Weber has been a part of the journey from the early UAVs to today’s complex designs and he agrees there are challenges to helping growers adopt aerial imagery, as there are for any precision ag system. His advice is for a grower is start slowly with one data system, either aerial or yield. Learn to operate it and run it efficiently in keeping with their particular farming practices.

“When no till came out, we had guys who started and investigated, did some trial plots and started slowly, and they’re probably still doing it today,” says Weber, president of Ag Business & Crop. “Then there were those who went to all of the meetings and changed over the entire farm. How many of those are still in it and how many went back and bought a plow? Remember, not every field is the same.”

The same applies to the use of aerial imagery; find your specific need and tailor the technology accordingly. Weber feels that satellite imagery is no better or worse than UAV imagery, and each provides useful data. If high resolution images are needed, then satellite imagery isn’t the best fit. If the goal is to have imagery once a week, the associated time requirements make satellite the better option.

“That’s the way to overcome (the ‘pretty pictures’ default),” says Weber. “You don’t have to be the one doing all the work — you have to have the network that helps you to work with it. Taking the image is one thing; doing something with it afterwards is another.”

Using yield monitors for specific purposes is another example. Yield monitors are good for reflecting removal rates as historical information. From there, a grower can start planning ahead. But with overhead imagery, a grower — or their advisor — is seeing what’s happening right now, and a yield monitor can’t provide that information, adds Weber.

Part of the challenge of precision ag too is that the sector is simultaneously expanding and growing. There can be an advantage to owning the very latest system, yet it also has to come back to how the technology is used. Where is the cutoff point between owning an older system that you really understand, and a newer one that is more powerful?

“Choose how you go about that and make yourself a plan — and fry the biggest fish first,” Weber adds. “What is your biggest challenge and what tools do you need for that, and be open to what the data is telling you. This is going to go far beyond what we’re doing right now, partly because we’re finding out the sensors we need and the capabilities and timing that bring us value.”

Brandon Yott

A&L Canada Labs

Brandon Yott, like Felix Weber, believes there is a lot more to come. Growers, their advisors and retailers have only scratched the surface of how to use the technology, and with the addition of sensors, computer algorithms, and multispectral and hyperspectral cameras, there are more tools and methods for making better business decisions on the farm.

Brandon Yott. photo: Supplied

“I think the potential is there,” says Yott, strategy and business development manager for A&L Canada Laboratories. “Most people know that ‘the old way’ does not work anymore. Sustainability, traceability, vertical integration and razor-thin margins make this a different game. These are tools to help us make better business decisions and get a better handle on return on investment and managing variability.”

With overhead imagery, Yott, who refers to precision ag as “decision ag,” agrees the potential is virtually limitless. But here’s where we are. Satellite is inexpensive but the quality is subpar and not always available because of clouds. Drones are more expensive but provide higher resolution. Then, the new multispectral and hyperspectral cameras can take in more wavelengths to help growers see disease outbreaks or deficiencies earlier than before.

Choosing the technology depends on the needs of the producer and the user, says Yott. The notion that it’s only useful or economical for growers is too narrow a focus. A tiling company can fly over a field in spring to see where tiles are blocked, or a large-acreage livestock producer can locate their cattle with an inexpensive UAV. Food companies evaluating traceability protocols can use aerial imagery to their advantage.

The costs are falling significantly and every day the technology is getting better. It’s getting faster and cheaper, and higher resolution at the same time. Yott is optimistic about its applicability, yet adds that there are still regulatory barriers on the use of drone technology which could help simplify weed, insect or disease management by allowing drones to apply herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.

“We have the tools but will we be allowed to use them?” he asks, noting the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) has said “no” to any registered crop protection products applied via drones.

“The research and development in this space is unbelievable and the speed of technology is kind of scary. One large food processor is using high resolution imagery in-season to check the field for plastic garbage so it can be mapped out prior to harvest. If that plastic gets into the combine, the entire load would be rejected for contamination at the food plant.”

Points to remember

The common thread with aerial imagery is the same as any precision ag system: start small and focus on one component, define your goals and invest in professional guidance if needed. Understand that this is the beginning of precision ag: its uses are becoming limitless, and its efficiencies are increasing.

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