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Satellites and ag drones link up

By targeting their strengths, these two technologies can complement each other

For “eye-in-the-sky” technology, the last three years have seen some stunning advances, especially in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and satellite imaging systems. Yet while both made headlines about the same time in 2011, both also had limited success on the farm, as is often the case when new technologies first get into the hands of early adopters and innovators.

This past May, however, things really began to take off for both technologies. Early in the month, a piece in Farm Industry News highlighted the activity of WinField (owned by Land O’Lakes) and its latest addition to its satellite imaging service, as an enhancement of its R7 Tool technology.

Late in 2013, Land O’Lakes purchased French-based Geosys, and in 2014 it was pledging to begin delivering weekly satellite images of crops across the U.S. Nine days later, AgriMarketing ran a short piece in its weekly news updates, referring to a “new constellation of satellites to be launched” for agriculture as well as other industries.

Among the entrants were OmniEarth, Dynetics and Harris Corporation, and Farm Industry News also reported that others including Satshot would be stepping up for the 2015 market.

Meanwhile, Felix Weber of Ag Business & Crop Inc., based in Palmerston, Ont., introduced the eBee Ag system, a significant upgrade from Swiss-based senseFly, the Swinglet Cam manufacturer. Weber was the exclusive Canadian and then North American distributor of the Swinglet Cam, and his excitement was evident during a mid-May open house.

It was at that event that he showcased the eBee’s autopilot capabilities and its software that enables users to mosaic images together for a more comprehensive perspective. In a matter of hours, a farmer can have a detailed image of a field, ready for validation and further management strategies.

Silver lining, not a silver bullet

The thing to remember about any of these technologies is that they won’t make you a better farmer with a simple purchase. Sales of less costly, do-it-yourself helicopter-style UAVs offer “drone technology on your own farm” for as little as $1,500 to $2,000. The problem is, unless you can interpret the images, all you get are high-resolution pictures of your crops.

launching an UAV in a field

Felix Weber demonstrates one of the unit’s ease-of-use advantages in launching the UAV.

“It’s a tool to get something,” says Weber, referring to both the UAV and satellite imagery. “It’s not about buying a unit, it’s about how you collect the data, when you collect the data and what you do with the data after.”

One of the advantages of the eBee Ag unit, Weber says, is that its autopilot is a step up from most other UAVs, which often require a remote control device of some sort. The autonomous design also includes mission planning, with on-board navigation system that senses wind speed and obstacles such as birds, adjusting flight paths and landing approaches accordingly.

The eBee unit comes equipped with a standard near-infrared (NIR) lens, which can provide biomass indications, growth monitoring and crop discrimination. Options for other lenses include an RE — red edge — design to detect plant stress, chlorophyll indication, drought assessment and senescence analysis. The RGB — red, green, blue — band camera provides real colour two- and three-dimensional visual rendering and it can even evaluate drainage systems. Finally, the multispectral camera can provide biomass indication, leaf-area indexing and help with nitrogen recommendations.

But Weber emphasizes again that ground truthing and working with someone who’s experienced are still the keys to making the most of these technologies. “I don’t want this to be like a yield monitor, where everybody jumped on it but didn’t necessarily know how to use the data.”

Not a competition

The other unique aspect of these two types of technology is that neither side sees the other as a competitor. In fact, both parties go out of their way to state each technology has its strengths. No up-sell, no trash talk. Weber believes UAVs are better suited to smaller fields — a perfect fit for Eastern Canada — although not out of the realm of the functional for farms in Western Canada. As well, UAVs are not hampered by cloud cover, which can delay analysis in satellite imagery.

WinField’s Dr. David Gebhardt is quick to agree with those two points. When a farmer needs an assessment of insect thresholds or a heads-up on applying a fungicide in wheat, delaying a day or two can lead to significant yield loss. As for strengths of satellites, there are far more satellites orbiting above the U.S. than above Canada, at least for the time being. But from Gebhardt’s perspective, satellite imagery’s strength comes from its coverage area — miles above the ground — and its historical vantage point. Through Geosys technology within WinField’s R7 Tool, a farmer could work back as many as 10 or 20 years by some claims, and garner historical perspectives to help with planting or in-season issues.

infrared satellite image

It’s one thing to have satellite imagery made available through a system such as the R7 Tool, but also important is the expertise needed to extrapolate the data.
photo: Winfield

The really good news is that there will come a day when a company pulls all of the sensing and imaging technologies together — from active (ground-based) sensors like GreenSeeker or OptRx to UAVs, all the way into outer space with satellite imagery.

“Satellite imagery was a good place for us to start because the technology was already developed, and over the past three years, we’ve experienced considerable advancements,” says Gebhardt, director of agronomic data and technology with WinField. “I can see a day where there’s a full range of offers that a farmer should be able to choose from. We plan to work with technology companies like senseFly and Trimble, and some others that have some very nice systems that can bring all of that information together in one overall sort of remote-sensing offer.”

Gebhardt also echoes Weber’s belief that the technology is just a tool. It needs to be supported with interpretive skills, or else it becomes a high-priced — but potentially low-value — toy.

“Now we’re talking about real data that’s ground truthed and validated, and bringing some intelligence behind the really cool pictures,” says Gebhardt. “So let’s work together and see how this technology can be combined with our agronomic expertise and really bring something that has value to the farmer.”

Right to fly

Federal authorities in Canada and the U.S. are aware and wary of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles as they are more properly called. In the U.S., farmers who purchase their own units are urged to follow all Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, even to the extent of informing airports within a set distance of their fields as to when the units might be in flight.

In Canada, Felix Weber of Ag business & Crop Inc. says that with transport Canada one of the criteria is based on the weight of a UAV and its potential for causing damage in the event of inadvertent collisions. the ebee Ag Unit weighs about 750 grams, even with the cameras loaded in, so damage is kept to a minimum.

In spite of any administrative misgivings, senseFly representatives have stated that similar systems can be used — and are being used — in forestry, mining, conservation and environmental management, land surveying and urban planning. they’ve also been used in other parts of the world for emergency assessments of accident sites, hazardous material cleanups and even locating missing people.

About the author

CG Production Editor

Ralph Pearce

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