Discussing drones

A panel of industry experts sheds some light on the drone 
landscape for producers interested in investing in the equipment

Interested in diving into the world of drones? Start small, a panel of agronomists told farmers attending Manitoba Potato Production Days Jan. 27.

“I would suggest starting with a small piece of equipment,” said Trevor Thornton, president of Crop Care Consulting. “A lot of guys want something that they can keep in their truck and pull over and launch when they spot something in the field. These guys are looking for quick access and you don’t need to spend a lot of money to do that.”

Thornton was part of a panel of four industry advisers who discussed their experience using drone equipment, how it is helpful and the direction producers should take if interested in investing in the equipment.

Ian MacRae, professor and extension entomologist at the University of Minnesota, Craig Linde, diversification specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, and Darren White, agronomist with Delta Ag Services, also took part in the panel.

Keep it simple

“From a producer perspective, I would recommend getting a simple model for about $1,500 to $2,000. Don’t spend too much because that won’t give you the value that you need,” said Thornton.

The panellist said simpler models don’t produce Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) data, but the green images they do produce and the aerial perspective is still highly valuable and sometimes all a grower needs.

“The equipment that you can get from about $1,500 won’t give you NDVI image but just looking at things from a different perspective is a value in itself,” said Thornton.

“Drones give us a new resource,” said MacRae. “Any issues that you can visibly spot in your fields from the ground can be seen even better from the air.”

Linde agreed, saying drones can be incredibly useful at acquiring a better oversight of your operation but he warned they won’t remove the requirement of scouting fields.

“Zooming in on plots can certainly be useful, in terms of seeing how applications are progressing throughout the season, and at the same time, keeping a detailed record,” said Linde. “Flying allows us to see areas of vulnerability but we certainly still need boots on the ground to be able to examine and define these areas.”

Complex and time consuming

Panellists said that more complex drones that produce the NDVI imagery can be expensive and frustrating when trying to keep up with the rapidly advancing technology.

“These are great tools but they are pricey and what goes up, must come down. Sometimes in a fiery manner,” said MacRae. “Advancements are also happening at a tremendous rate. The software and technology are being developed and are changing very fast.”

Interpretation of NDVI data can also be time consuming, complicated and requires a solid Internet connection to upload data.

“Flying the devices is the easy part. Interpreting the data that you collect is the challenge,” said Thornton.

Thornton says that producers looking to use drone technology have a few options: purchasing all of the equipment and software themselves, acquiring a drone and sending the data to a company to be processed or hiring a company to both fly and process the data.

“What some of the companies are suggesting is uploading the data to their systems to be processed, which is a great concept. The data can upload either remotely from the field or when you get back to the office. But, a lot of us are rural so you don’t have great fibre optic lines and to send all of this information somewhere is going to be cumbersome. Just because of the size of the data we are sending,” said Thornton.

Hiring a drone service at a per-acre rate can be an appealing option as drone companies have more advanced equipment and software and can supply NDVI data without having to invest the time, or acquire insurance and licence requirements.

“If someone really wants to get complete field surveys or look at variable and diagnostic work, you are best to hire a service that is out there to help you out,” said Thornton.

What can NDVI data do for you?

“The NDVI data the drones compile can show us where chemical application has been missed, repercussions from previous field management, snow cover damage, seeding misses and how the crop advances over the course of the season,” said White.

Data collected can give producers inklings to areas in the field that need further attention.

Thornton says his company has been focused on using drone technology with variable-rate fungicide in the canola. Data collected after flying over producers’ fields provides insight into when to spray and when not to spray.

“That is really where the saving benefits are. Even producers who didn’t spray or completely sprayed their fields found value in the data because it confirmed which fields were worth spraying,” said Thornton.

About the author


Jennifer Paige is a reporter centred in southwestern Manitoba. She previously wrote for the agriculture-based magazine publisher, Issues Ink and was the sole-reporter at the Minnedosa Tribune for two years prior to joining the Manitoba Co-operator.


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