High fliers: The in­creas­ing use of drones in agri­cul­ture

Drones are in­creas­ingly be­ing used in the agri­cul­tural sec­tor to aide pre­ci­sion farm­ing, So­ci­ety of Pre­ci­sion Agri­cul­ture Aus­tralia writes

Farms & Farm Machinery - - Contents -

Farm­ers, agri­cul­tural con­sul­tants and re­searchers have taken a great in­ter­est in drones over the past few years and the field con­tin­ues to be one of the ma­jor growth sec­tors – fu­elling the de­vel­op­ment and re­lease of drone sys­tems tai­lored specif­i­cally to agri­cul­tural ap­pli­ca­tions.

The drone it­self is sim­ply a plat­form that of­fers par­tic­u­lar ad­van­tages over other over­head im­agery and sens­ing op­tions, such as satel­lites and manned air­craft. The main ad­van­tages of drones are their rel­a­tively low cost to own and op­er­ate, and their abil­ity to fly un­der clouds, and as of­ten as re­quired.

Be­fore bring­ing drone tech­nol­ogy into farm man­age­ment, think about the ap­pli­ca­tion, and the plat­form and ac­ces­sories.

THE AP­PLI­CA­TION

The big­gest ques­tions to an­swer are: ‘What in­for­ma­tion do I want the drone to col­lect?’; and ‘What tasks do I want the drone to per­form?’

Most drones cur­rently on the mar­ket come with stan­dard cam­eras ca­pa­ble of cap­tur­ing still im­ages (dig­i­tal pho­to­graphs) and video footage in the vis­i­ble light range. These drones can col­lect vis­ually ap­peal­ing footage for a range of uses such as rou­tine in­spec­tions, check­ing for dam­age af­ter floods, frosts, or fire events, and real es­tate. They can also find ap­pli­ca­tion in time and mo­tion stud­ies at crit­i­cal times such as har­vest and check­ing water troughs, fences, ir­ri­ga­tion, and live­stock.

There are also op­por­tu­ni­ties to use these stan­dard im­ages to as­sess ger­mi­na­tion and de­ter­mine plant den­sity to as­sist with de­ci­sions such as whether to re­plant parts or a whole pad­dock. Crop scout­ing with­out en­ter­ing the pad­dock can as­sist with sev­eral key de­ci­sions that a farmer or agron­o­mist might make based on vis­ual as­sess­ments of a crop.

These ac­tiv­i­ties are po­ten­tially very in­for­ma­tive and time sav­ing, and can over­come con­straints such as gain­ing ac­cess to pad­docks im­me­di­ately af­ter rain or other weather events. These im­ages can also be used in a sim­i­lar man­ner to hand-held dig­i­tal cam­eras to mon­i­tor and eval­u­ate tri­als or sea­sonal ef­fects on dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties.

To use a drone to col­lect data that has ad­di­tional value in terms of de­ci­sion mak­ing and pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture, the user may need to add other sen­sors to the drone plat­form. With the ap­pro­pri­ate sen­sors on board, drones can be used for a wide va­ri­ety of ap­pli­ca­tions such as:

• As­sess­ment of plant green­ness or pho­to­syn­thetic ac­tive

biomass (which might cor­re­late to ni­tro­gen)

• Crop stress (for ir­ri­ga­tion or other man­age­ment)

• Weed stress (for fallow spray­ing)

• In­sect ac­tiv­ity (hot spots)

• Crop ma­tu­rity or ripeness (for har­vest or des­ic­ca­tion) • As­sess­ment of soil colour and ground cover

• Yield es­ti­ma­tion

• 3D map­ping for land lev­el­ling or de­vel­op­ment.

For these ap­pli­ca­tions to be pos­si­ble the drone plat­form needs to be fit­ted with the cor­rect sen­sors for the task and sup­ported with the ap­pro­pri­ate soft­ware to an­a­lyse the data col­lected.

There is now an ob­vi­ous move to­ward the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of agri­cul­tural drones that in­clude a pack­age of hard­ware and soft­ware specif­i­cally tai­lored to agri­cul­tural in­dus­tries. Early agri­cul­tural drone sys­tems have also been brought to mar­ket by lead­ing drone man­u­fac­tur­ers to un­der­take a va­ri­ety of tasks such as aerial spray­ing and seed­ing, bird scar­ing, and water sam­pling.

THE PLAT­FORM

Cur­rently, there are four drone plat­forms com­mer­cially avail­able, each with spe­cific prop­er­ties and uses in agri­cul­ture: 1. Multi-ro­tor

2. Fixed wing

3. Sin­gle ro­tor

4. Fixed wing hy­brid.

SEN­SORS AND SOFT­WARE

Fly­ing a drone to make crop, live­stock and in­fra­struc­ture in­spec­tions is quite easy and rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive.

If you want to use the drone to carry data-col­lect­ing sen­sors to cre­ate maps and make man­age­ment de­ci­sions you will need to en­sure that you have a drone plat­form that is phys­i­cally ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing the nec­es­sary equip­ment, have ac­cess to data and im­age-pro­cess­ing soft­ware (ei­ther pur­chas­ing the soft­ware or

sub­scrib­ing to a ser­vice), and have the abil­ity to trans­fer the maps to a vari­able-rate ap­pli­ca­tor.

The soft­ware iden­ti­fies and matches ref­er­ence points in each photo and ‘stitches’ the im­ages to­gether to pro­duce one seam­less im­age of the area or pad­dock of in­ter­est, viewed from di­rectly over­head.

If a flight takes 20 min­utes and the cam­era is pre-set to take an im­age ev­ery five sec­onds of flight time, this will re­sult in

240 pho­tos to process. Fur­ther anal­y­sis of the recorded data may be pos­si­ble to ex­tract spe­cific in­for­ma­tion re­quired for de­ci­sion mak­ing.

With agri­cul­ture seen as a growth sec­tor for drone tech­nol­ogy, there are an in­creas­ing num­ber of drone sys­tems com­ing onto the mar­ket that of­fer a range of ap­pli­ca­tions suited to agri­cul­tural man­age­ment and de­ci­sion mak­ing. Prom­i­nent brands cur­rently of­fer­ing agri­cul­tural drone sys­tems in­clude AgEa­gle, DJI (Agras), and Pre­ci­sion Hawk.

In some sit­u­a­tions, it may be more cost-ef­fec­tive to en­gage the ser­vices of a spe­cial­ist drone ser­vice to col­lect and in­ter­pret the data re­quired.

PAY­LOADS

In ad­di­tion to stan­dard cam­eras, some plat­forms can carry one or two pay­loads and many al­low the op­er­a­tor to swap pay­loads, mean­ing the plat­form can po­ten­tially carry out a num­ber of dif­fer­ent tasks us­ing:

• Multi-spec­tral sen­sor for crop mon­i­tor­ing (e.g., nor­malised

dif­fer­ence veg­e­ta­tion in­dex [NDVI])

• 3D pho­togram­me­try cam­eras

• Ther­mal im­agery cam­eras (e.g., in­sect hot spots)

• Dry ma­te­rial spreader (e.g., pel­lets, seed, fer­tiliser)

• Water sam­pling

• Bird scarer

• Sprayer (liq­uid pes­ti­cide, fer­tiliser, or her­bi­cide).

When de­cid­ing which drone plat­form to pur­chase, be sure to re­search the prac­ti­cal­ity and costs in­volved in retrofitting ad­di­tional sen­sors. Be clear about what you want to be able to do with the drone now and try to en­vis­age fu­ture ap­pli­ca­tions.

Farm­ers, agri­cul­tural con­sul­tants and re­searchers have taken a great in­ter­est in drones over the past few years

Early agri­cul­tural drone sys­tems have also been brought to mar­ket by lead­ing drone man­u­fac­tur­ers to un­der­take a va­ri­ety of tasks such as aerial spray­ing and seed­ing, bird scar­ing and water sam­pling Drones can col­lect vis­ually ap­peal­ing footage for a range of uses such as rou­tine in­spec­tions, check­ing for dam­age af­ter floods, frosts or fire events and real es­tate

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