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Precision agriculture takes to wing at Southport

Precision agriculture has both sky-high potential and some very down-to-earth obstacles

When it comes to precision agriculture, there is no such thing as too much quality data — assuming you have the software and internet connection to process it.

Southport hosted a precision ag discussion and drew farm consultants, service providers and producers Dec. 12 for its second workshop.

“It’s gone from satellite, really huge zones, to really small zones,” Matthew Johnson of M3 Aerial Productions said. “And the ability to micromanage — especially with the ability to use drones to spray — all that has totally changed, and that will continue to change, how the precision agriculture data collection and management processes are actually executed.”

His drone company has become one of Manitoba’s main commercial sources of NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetative Index) imaging, which measures near-infrared light and visible light reflected from a crop.

The resulting image maps crop health through different zones in a field. A healthy plant will reflect more near-infrared light compared to visible light, which it tends to absorb, while the ratio of visible light reflected to near-infrared light reflected will be higher in a stressed plant.

Just a warning

NDVI alone, however, will only tell a producer that there is a problem, not what the problem is, attendees heard.

Johnson advised the room to use as many tools as possible, including NDVI, soil mapping, soil tests and elevation mapping, to get a better picture of what is happening in the field and more accurately diagnose problems.

Johnson says he provides some guidance if a farmer doesn’t know how to interpret the data. His company may contract agronomists to help make sense of drone-generated results.

Trevor Thornton, Crop Care Consulting founder and one of the first western Canadian entrepreneurs to use Soil Optix, a high-definition topsoil mapping system, stressed proper soil tests regardless the technology in play.

“Ultimately, it all starts with the soil,” he said. “We have to know what we’re working with in the background rather than just say, ‘Well, Dad always did this blend, so I’m going to do it; well, we made more money last year so I’m going to put more money into that blend this year.’”

Trevor Thornton, founder of Crop Care Consulting, discusses his work with topsoil mapping program Soil Optix during a recent precision agriculture workshop in Southport.
photo: Alexis Stockford

Farmers should have a good grasp on both nutrient levels in their soil and the interaction between nutrients and soil pH, something he says is often overlooked but can lead to fertilizer inefficiencies and loss of yield.

Reading topography

Elevation mapping merges particularly well with NDVI, Johnson said. A region may show red on the map because it is high and dry or highlight low-lying spots with drainage issues.

Some of that elevation mapping may now come from LiDAR, which uses laser pulses to measure the range from an aerial vehicle to the ground.

Vantage Manitoba has started using LiDAR elevation maps to design drainage plans.

The elevation map is the first step in any drainage plan, which is based on anticipated flows in the field, Simon Knutson, precision agronomist with Vantage Manitoba, said.

His company recently signed an agreement with Winnipeg avionics company Atlis Geomatics for ready LiDAR data.

Vantage argues the high-speed system will generate ready data, rather than each field being mapped on an as-needed basis. Knutson says that has significantly cut the time needed to develop a farm drainage plan.

“It used to be that I would have to survey the field,” he said. “If someone sent me data, nine times out of 10 there were problems with it that I might have to go back to the field and check a few things. By having the LiDAR available off the shelf, it probably saves me a day on every field.”

The new technology is as accurate as RTK, a satellite navigation technique that provides corrections in real time, but gives higher resolutions, he said. Vantage Manitoba says the elevation mapping will generate millions of data points per quarter section, the equivalent of RTK surveying swaths every foot, with accuracy down to one centimetre.

While the technology was tapped mainly for drainage, Knutson says it could be applied to any scenario where elevation mapping is used.

“It could be used for anything,” he said. “We could supply just the data if it’s a consultant that wanted to use it with their NDVI or something like that.”

Simon Knutson, precision agronomist with Vantage Manitoba, pitches his company’s integration of LiDAR elevation mapping in Southport.
photo: Alexis Stockford

The data could be loaded into an on-tractor display when using a scraper, he added.

About 75 per cent of southern Manitoba is already mapped, according to Vantage Manitoba, although coverage south of Brandon and north of Riding Mountain National Park has gaps. Knutson hopes most of those will be filled in this summer.

Atlis Geomatics plans to update data every three to five years to account for changes in the landscape.

Knutson says tracking changes over time may eventually help track erosion, although it’s not an aspect his company has explored yet.

Searching for signal

Precision agriculture has hit a connectivity black hole in some parts of the province. For many living in rural Manitoba, particularly those along the U.S. border and north through the Riding Mountain area and beyond (all regions tagged for poor internet connection by a Brandon University study in 2016), that will come as no surprise.

Processing NDVI is data intensive, Johnson said. It takes 500-700 pictures to cover a field, and his company might upload 1,500 photos at a time, at five to 10 megabytes each.

That alone has led some farmers to give up on the technology. Johnson says he has spoken to producers who own drones, but have them collecting dust after the frustration of trying to pro­cess the data.

“If you don’t have that high-powered computer that can process the imagery on your computer using a very expensive software, then you have to rely on uploading the data to be processed through a cloud server somewhere else and that’s thousands of megabytes’ worth of data that people have to upload and if they don’t have a good internet connection, then it’s totally not even an option,” he said.

His company has launched a “snail mail” service where farmers print data out and mail it to M3 Aerial Productions, which will handle the processing and return it (also by post).

“If you collect it in the morning and drop it in the mail same day, I’ll get it the next day if it’s in Manitoba — likely the next day — then I can process it that day and then hopefully be able to send it back,” he said.

Wait times province-wide sit at three to four days so far, he said, while Canada-wide requests have a six-day average maximum.

Transport Canada regulations have also had a chilling effect, Johnson said.

Commercial drone rules apply to any use outside hobby flying, including use for agriculture. Transport Canada changed the rules in 2017. To use an agricultural drone, farmers must now have a special permission (SFOC), or meet 63 exemption conditions, including a site suitability assessment, line-of-sight operation, at least $100,000 of liability insurance and no flying over 300 feet, within five nautical miles of an aerodrome and at least three miles from a heliport. Even with an exemption, operators must take some ground school training.

Spraying by drone

Don Campbell, founder of startup ROGA Drone, says aerial drone application might be a “game changer” for farmers, although the technology is still emerging.

“There’s probably two ways of going about it right now,” he said. “We’re going to offer the service side of it for this upcoming year — try and educate some people and get the product out there for evaluation. I can kind of see down the road where people or farmers would buy their own units and use it themselves. The cost of them and the return of investment is going to be much easier.”

His startup is based on the idea that drone application has advantages over plane or field equipment. Drones don’t leave wheel tracks, for example, which he argues will drop yield from compaction. They also can easily handle corners or irregular fields, need no runway or pad and can go into the field even if soil is too muddy for regular equipment. Campbell also claims that drone application will cost less per acre.

“The one that I’m kind of excited about is night spraying,” he told the room. “I’m just working on my next SFOC and there’s a section in there where you can tick off whether you want to do day or night flying. You still have to stay within visual line of sight, but if you have LED lights on your sprayer and as long as you can see it, Transport Canada’s biggest concern is lighting the ground control area where you’re working.”

At the same time, the technology faces challenges. Tank size is limited. Campbell has a 15-kg tank on his drone, spraying at ultra-low volume. That tank may be enough to push a drone over the 25-kg limit for an SFOC exemption.

Drones are not built for what he’s doing, Campbell added. Most of the models he considered were based on photograph drones.

Drift is another issue. The drone applies product at 70 miles per hour and is subject to some wind shear, causing small droplets. The drone flies only three feet over crops to overcome this and has a three-foot spray buffer.

Campbell will test his technology in the field with Bayer next year. Beyond those tests in Calgary, Campbell has set up testing near Portage la Prairie and is looking for farmer co-operators to also try drone spraying.

“Because it’s new technology, I think there’s going to be a fair amount of education that goes into it,” he said. “We’re going to have to prove that we can reduce drift to an acceptable level. On the commercial side of things, because we’re using ultra-low-volume applications, it’s going to be off label right now. It’s going to be with minimal water applications, so we’re going to have to get endorsements from chemical companies to perhaps put it on their label in the future. That’s why we’re doing some testing with Bayer this spring.”

Ground school

Johnson’s company will be making ground school more farmer friendly starting next year.

M3 Aerial Productions is adding a specific program for agriculture to its existing courses.

The program will tackle imaging and data interpretation as well as drone operation and regulations.

“If you’re a farmer and you’re using a drone or an agronomist and you’re using a drone, you want to know the best ways of collecting data and processing data and the options that you have, because for a lot of people it’s completely foreign,” Johnson said.

The first agricultural ground school is set for February 2018.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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